case study

Creates Network Connection, Contextualizes Lessons, & Connects Decisions to Outcomes


After four years using Statecraft IR, Dr. Benjamin Tkach says that “it’s an important piece to get students excited about international relations.” Students are digital natives, so using technology as a teaching tool helps demonstrate lessons in a unique, engaging way.

For him, the top benefits of Statecraft are:

Plus, the lessons students learn working in groups are valuable because they have life applications. Group dynamics can sometimes be a challenge, but navigating interpersonal conflict in a simulated world is a healthy way to learn important lessons students can take with them to real-world scenarios like the workplace where stakes are much higher.


Spring 2021, April 22nd


Dr. Benjamin Tkach is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Mississippi State University. His primary research focuses on privatization of security and non-state actors’ involvement in conflict. Additional research areas include US foreign policy and nuclear security.

He’s been teaching for eight years and using Statecraft for four years. During that time, he’s used it in two different situations: at a small liberal arts college and now in large classes at a Research One institution.


Dr. Benjamin Tkach Photo

Statecraft is incredibly valuable long-term in establishing the utility of the class, establishing the classroom environment and making sure that the important lessons of IR almost become real for the student.


4 years of statecraft

Four years ago, I found Statecraft at a conference where I took a class on simulations in international relations. Now I’ve probably ran the simulation in a total of seven different classes over the years; this semester will make eight run-throughs. At Mississippi State I teach the same course in the spring and the fall so I do it two times a year. I start it in weeks five to eight and we go through its completion.

It’s designed within my course to highlight different theoretical concepts each week.


A major benefit of Statecraft is on the tech side: the user interface and the software system that underlines it is unique to Statecraft and has merit on its own.

It gives students another mechanism for learning and engagement that can’t be replicated by anything else I do.


One aspect of IR, and really political science in general, is how abstract it is. And so obviously, we try to contextualize it in classrooms and try to give examples using simulations and learning mechanisms to keep it interesting. 

The way that students learn now is in short bytes: it needs to be five to eight minutes of engagement if we’re talking about an online context; and the engagement has to be non-passive. That era where you stand on a stage and just pontificate is not the best way to engage the lessons of international relations. 

Statecraft gives students an opportunity for engagement that’s not human to human. As we think of the growth of technology and the digital native component of students that are coming into classrooms, having something that is more consistent with how they engage other aspects of their lives is helpful.


One feature that I like about Statecraft is the foreign policy quiz. It groups students that have similar views of how the world works, which is a dimension they don’t tend to think about. 

Once the groups are formed around week three, I use them for their breakout groups, study sessions, projects and offline games.

That gives students exposure to other students that they may otherwise not meet because these are huge classes. I find that very valuable. 

Plus, it helps make sure students stay on track with other assignments that are not group related, and they check in with each other. With COVID, just having another group of people who are willing to check on you and want to engage is helpful.


Students are isolated, especially during COVID. Here in Mississippi we have a lot of first generation students, we have a lot of students who are not necessarily comfortable in the university environment. I can use Statecraft to make me more approachable. Having a way for me to engage and connect with them at the group level is helpful. 

I might know something is going on with a particular student and I can’t approach it because it’s just through observation. It’s unlikely that I’m going to get that student to come to my office hours, or even respond to a one-on-one email.

But if I can engage them in the Statecraft group, it brightens them up and it humanizes me. As those interactions then start to increase, then they’re going to be much more comfortable contacting me or asking questions in class.

Statecraft is time efficient in building those connections with students and having something that allows me to engage groups where they’re going to be much more comfortable. 

Teal Quote Mark
Statecraft reflected real-world dynamics with trade and international agreements. Obviously, on a different scale, the trading process happened much how it would in the real world. There were negotiation and coercion involved in some trades. Statecraft contributed to the class experience and learning environment in many ways. Especially with COVID, it was very hard to meet people. However, Statecraft back and forth conversations allowed our class to meet and converse outside of the classroom. In my case, I made two really good friends through it and our conversations started off with a lot of trade negotiations. It also taught the lessons we were learning and I was able to understand the game and the class the further it went on. It connected what we were learning to us actually being able to use it through the simulation. Just like real-world that the more you are involved typically means the power that your nation had and reflects participation and engagement in the class. 10/10 experience.
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Student Quote
In response to Dr. Tkach's end-of-course questionnaire


The second component that I like Statecraft for in terms of learning is contextualizing the lessons. There are key terms and concepts in international relations that are embedded within Statecraft that are very abstract, but they’re hugely important ideas. Overarching concepts such as anarchy, shadow of the future, cooperation, and uncertainty. 

I use the sim to point out these major concepts and start conversations: “Okay, here’s what’s going on between these countries. How does it tie to our theory, and then how does it reflect in Statecraft?”


In terms of the gameplay itself, there’s numerous aspects that tie to the real world: big concepts like anarchy and shadow of the future. 

Part of the reason I run it in the middle portion of the course is that it allows realization of some of the other aspects, such as international law or trade or conflict. 

Statecraft allows domestic politics, it allows international actors or a host of different types of international actors to be engaged in the process of the international community. So it provides those lessons and those identifiers. 


Statecraft also helps when I take its lessons offline as course exercises. I have a Scattergories-style popular trade game in which country groups must look at products in their house. I want them to go look and think critically about where their items in their dwellings come from. 

What it pushes students to do is realize how trade impacts their daily lives in Starkville, Mississippi. We end up with just dozens and dozens of unique countries and unique products from each of those countries.

That is one example of how the lesson of Statecraft ties to the different theories of trade. Plus, because it’s competitive, and students enjoy that aspect of it, they really usually get into it. 

making a personal connection

Statecraft is incredibly valuable long-term in establishing the utility of the class, establishing the classroom environment and making sure that the important lessons of IR almost become real for the student.

So much of what happens in IR is “over there.” It’s outside of most students’ daily engagement; not just the news, but a general feeling that “Oh, this has nothing to do with me.” 

What Statecraft allows is: “Yes, it does, here’s how it is and here’s my engagement.” Statecraft facilitates that and I think it’s very beneficial in that, which is one reason why I use it.

Teal Quote Mark
Statecraft modeled real life political scenarios that were mentioned in lectures, which helped paint a picture of what each aspect of world politics is about and how it works. Statecraft contributed to the class by giving us the opportunity to work together within our groups as well as throughout the full class. Overall, statecraft helped me so much with the ideas and concepts we learned about in class by allowing me to see it in a "real world" situations.
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Student Quote
In response to Dr. Tkach's end-of-course questionnaire


In Statecraft, Students can attach the consequences of decision making to an outcome. For example, simulating how states are structured, their domestic features, the features that they pick, as well as the resource constraints that each state is dealt. 

Being able to see how these different pieces connect in the decision making process with an outcome against real competitors is one of the great strengths of Statecraft. 

It’s not against AI, it’s not just against simulation, it’s against those people over there, right? They may have seen each other or vaguely know each other. Then all of a sudden “those people” took Sapphire Island. They didn’t expect that. Now they’re suddenly interested. Suddenly they start to think: “Okay, our decisions in this have real consequences for the operating of the state.” 


It can be difficult for those groups to process when, for example, another group says “We’re not going to invade Sapphire Island” and then they  choose to.

Those dynamics are critical because it connects both cases in the international system and identifies that making a choice not just impacts you but impacts the network, in this case, the Statecraft simulated world.

This aspect of connecting decision making with outcomes is one significant strength of Statecraft that would be very difficult to simulate in any other environment.


Some students struggle to make confident decisions. The nice thing about Statecraft is that students have to make decisions so they can grow their decision-making skills.

There’s a realistic aspect to this because it does contribute to their grades, but it’s also built into the nature of the simulation. It helps them be able to think through the “if” scenario of what happens when they make the decision, plus actually take action by clicking through and implementing it. 

It's not Fair!

One of the aspects of public goods is the free rider problem, and Statecraft does an excellent job of framing and demonstrating that. Students wonder: “Well, why isn’t this getting solved?” 

Usually have your type-A personality who’s the president who comes and says, “Why can’t any of these other countries cooperate and get this done? What am I supposed to do?” You’re going to fail. Unless your country does it on its own, it’s not going to happen. They respond: “Well, that’s not fair!” 

No, it’s not fair. That’s what I’m trying to communicate. There’s a reason we haven’t solved some of these international issues and here’s one of several aspects. 


One scenario is if there’s no violence; sometimes this is because they’ve strategically decided to gain points as a class for not having any kind of violent action other than against the pirates and some of the games. I’ve seen states that agree to that, hang on to it for three or four terms, and then invade either a neighbor or Sapphire Island. And the class is in an uproar, and we have to sit down and have a conversation with the class about behaviors and people are upset. 

I have to say: “Well, you didn’t make some kind of treaty.” Yeah, they’re dishonest, fine. Fair enough. But did they violate any of the rules of the game or any rules that you yourself built? The answer to that is NO. Welcome to the international systems.


The other area of connecting decisions to outcomes is when simulations are violent. That could mean multiple invasions or a country that gets conquered completely. 

Students connect and start to recognize the importance of concepts and values. They want to be pacifist: “Well we’re pacifist, we didn’t have a defense force.” 

You said you were going to rely on the international community to help you, and they did nothing. You also got conquered. That’s your state choice. 

There’s not much to be said to that. They learn that being a pacifist doesn’t mean you don’t have a military per se, you just don’t use it offensively. 


The severity of seriousness in one class led to the use of nuclear weapons. One country had had it with the behavior of another country.

As it would have it, the country that used the nuclear weapon was not in the top three top performing countries because the international community responded.

The other classmates were like: “That seems way out of line.” They took action against them. Trade routes dried up and other disadvantageous outcomes occurred.

There are consequences: The students used a nuclear weapon. Now they’re going to have to repair the world and  try to rebuild the lack of trust amongst the actors after that behavior. 

So those kinds of things do happen with Statecraft when things fall apart, so to speak. But even that situation is helpful because of what students can learn from those engagements.

Teal Quote Mark
Statecraft mirrored real world international dynamics in several ways. Firstly, it demonstrated the "prisoner's dilemma" problem in that no state knew definitively what other states would do each turn. Secondly, it demonstrated that repeated interactions can overcome the desire to "defect," as constant interaction between states inspired more cooperation than discord. Thirdly, it demonstrated the difficulty of collective action problems, as only several states pooled resources and technologies to create the Globe of Frost, but all states benefitted from it. Statecraft improved the class experience and learning environment by highlighting many of the above issues in a simulated manner. It helped to turn the ideas discussed in class into actual strategies in a mock international system, which improved understanding and retention.
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Student Quote
In response to Dr. Tkach's end-of-course questionnaire

Learning to function in groups

Being able to function in different groups with different people that you might not be familiar with, or people that you have not met before is important. 

Obviously, if you’re engaging in international dynamics, the unfamiliar is something that we have to be able to navigate and do well.


Interesting outcomes I find do happen when groups really struggle to coordinate within their country. As well as the foreign policy quiz generally works, sometimes groups still don’t work. Sometimes there’s a strong personality, or sometimes someone didn’t take the quiz very seriously. And so they get put in a group where they have different IR perspectives and attitudes.

When that group starts to fail, I will meet with them one-on-one. They’ll ask: “Well, can we just change groups?” No. No, you can’t.

“I don’t understand, this other group gets along and they all want to accomplish the same thing.”

In the United States of America, how often do all the politicians agree on what we should do in foreign policy? How often do they agree on domestic politics?

It turns out that frequently nation states may not agree with themselves on what the policy should be.

The issues don’t usually escalate after I’ve engaged and communicated. Those groups usually take two or three turns to figure out that they are not functioning well. And in Statecraft, two or three turns is a lifetime. They’re significantly disadvantaged by that lost efficiency. Overall, it doesn’t really impact grades because there’s so many other opportunities for points. 

A lifelong lesson

More importantly, it’s a lifelong learning lesson for those students: if you’re assigned a group and you’re given tasks, you have to figure that out. There isn’t running to an arbitrary authority and saying, “Oh, we just can’t work together. We can’t figure it out. We can’t do it.” 

For that group those lessons are realistic and long-term. That’s what happens in real life. You work at a company or you work in a small business, and sometimes you have to work with people that may grate on you or may not fit you well. You still have to get your tasks done.


Since Statecraft is a simulated world, I feel it helps students take small steps towards dealing with those difficult group dynamics scenarios.

Doing this in the digital realm takes pressure off of the engagement compared to a scenario like an important work presentation.

It’s an undergraduate classroom situation. We can figure out a solution and a strategy together. That’s a healthy and easy way for students to learn an important long-term lesson that comes directly out in the functionality Statecraft provides me in the classroom.

Worth the time investment

Using Statecraft doesn’t save me time because I maximize its use; I want to make sure that the student experience is the best it can be. What’s important is that it’s a useful educational pedagogical tool for student learning. It definitely doesn’t cost me any more time.

In my way of using it, I put a lot of effort into making sure that it’s running consistently. I respond to groups when they are in the classroom, I follow up on emails and engagements when I see certain patterns or certain behaviors out of place. I want to make sure that it runs smoothly. 

I don’t think you have to do that; you can just let it run. In fact, early on Statecraft was just push-and-play; give them some time in class, give them time to debate. You don’t have to grade anything. It comes out, it’s well managed, the help desk is very effective. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to use Statecraft, but there’s so much more that this tool can do for me. 

If I had to replicate some of the learning opportunities within Statecraft, I’m not sure how I would do it, and I’m pretty confident however I did it would take more time than using Statecraft. So in that way, it probably does save time.


And after my first semester here at Mississippi State, I saw my undergraduate coordinator in the hallway. He mentioned that students were talking about my class and the simulation. These students had commented:

“Hey, Statecraft is different. This is something that we enjoy. This is something fun. This is something that helps us learn. We don’t have this in any other class that we’re taking. Dr. Tkach is really demanding but this is a fun aspect.”

I don’t I push my class or Statecraft, and I don’t advertise it. I’m terrible at self promotion, but students engage with it and when someone asks “How are your classes?” Statecraft is one of the first things, if not the first thing, they mentioned.

Statecraft is an important piece to get students excited about international relations.


Teal Quote Mark
Statecraft was a wonderful simulation because it absolutely reflected the real world dynamics of international relations. First, major concepts such as sovereignty became apparent immediately. I enjoyed having complete control over what happened within my countries borders without having other countries able to directly interfere. Next, I enjoyed getting to communicate with other countries regarding issues such as international trade and collective goals. Countries that made allies definitely saw the benefits. Trade became important within the simulation and those that used their comparative advantage and traded heavily could certainly benefit in terms of overall resources. Additionally, it was interesting to watch countries come together in attempt to address matters such as terrorism, climate change, and human rights issues, which are aspects that we face in the real world today. In particular, we faced a collective action problem as some countries wanted to free ride or were simply too poor to help on certain issues. Finally, Statecraft allowed me to grasp the concept of anarchy far better than before. It was clear that there was no central power in the simulation and this led to each country needing to battle for security. It became very clear that countries would need to be smart and competitive in order to gain power and wealth over its opponents, because ultimately, all countries were fighting to be successful in the same categories.
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Student Quote
In response to Dr. Tkach's end-of-course questionnaire

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