Preparing for the worst

A rogue Pakistani general has a nuclear weapon. You have less than five hours to diffuse the crisis. What do you do?

It’s not a new, hardcore, version of a choose your own adventure book. Instead, this type of scenario confronts members of a new student organization who take on roles as players in simulations of international crises.

Started by freshman Sean McLaughlin, Strategic Crisis Simulations gives students the opportunity to diffuse situations as diverse as wars and epidemics. The simulations thus far – including the example of the fictional Pakistani general – have been carried out through online chat rooms, though the group hopes to conduct simulations offline in the future. The specifics of each task vary, but they are always sure to make for a nerve-wracking experience.

“You have to come up with solutions in real time and in the real world,” said group member Kaiser Kabir, a freshman.

To add to the tension, a person’s behavior in the simulation can be unpredictable. Everyone is assigned a role with personality traits, but how each member plays it is entirely up to him or her.

“People can hide information, lie or cheat. It all depends on a person’s ambitions,” said McLaughlin. “When it gets going, it’s incredibly intense,” he added.

It’s hard for politics not to be intense, especially at a school like GW, known for its vocal student body. So he was shocked when he realized there was no organization for undergraduates that simulated real-life political dramas. The Conflict Resolution Forum, a similar program, is only available to graduate students.

For McLaughlin, who has been interested in crisis solving ever since visiting the National Strategy Information Center in Washington, SCS was the perfect way to fill the niche.

“The organization is quintessential to D.C.,” he said.

After coming to GW he proposed the idea to his friends, who immediately took interest. He then sought the help of professor Joanna Spear, director of the Security Policy Studies Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Currently the group has 23 members, but McLaughlin would like it to expand in the future. This, he hopes, will allow it to run one to two crisis simulations per year on its own without outside help. With more members, simulations could grow large enough to allow students to work in different rooms with full teams of informants.

Though plans are only just getting underway, McLaughlin said he sees a high potential for his group. In addition to challenging students to engage in simulations, he envisions the organization evolving into a forum to discuss current issues in international affairs.

“We hope to build up a network and invite policymakers, congressmen and senators to speak,” he said.

The group is also academically and ideologically diverse. It does not consist only of political science majors – members range from Russian majors to biology majors. Above all, McLaughlin stressed that no one should be dissuaded from joining.

As the group gears up, students can have fun trying to figure out how to disarm a state that has nuclear weapons or contain a disease that risks spreading to the whole globe.

At the end of the day, this is why students are attracted to the simulations. As Kabir said, playing “is an adrenaline rush. It’s a game of logic and reason.”

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