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Q&A: 2017 Routledge/ALT Prize Winners - Dr Dug Cubie and Dr Luke Moffett

Congratulations to Dr Dug Cubie (University College Cork) and Dr Luke Moffett (Queen's University Belfast), who were presented with the Routledge/ALT Teaching Law with Technology Prize at the ALT Conference in Portsmouth for their innovative project 'Arma3: Bringing the Battlefield into the Classroom,' which explores the challenges of International Humanitarian Law. 

We spoke to Dr Dug Cubie and Dr Luke Moffett after the conference to discuss their project and their future plans. 

Project Overview: 'Bringing the Battlefield into the Classroom'

The impact of armed conflicts across the globe has never been so close as a result of today’s technology. Governments and military forces are increasingly using computer simulations for training exercises, while non-state armed groups use social media to promote their violence and as a recruitment tool. Meanwhile, the gaming industry often presents armed conflicts from the first-person shooter perspective as a world without limits, with no consequences for breaching the laws of war such as shooting civilians. In the real world, warfare itself is becoming gamified by the use of drone strikes controlled by pilots thousands of miles away. Within an educational setting, there are understandable moral and ethical issues around utilising real war-related footage that graphically shows the full complexity and horror of war. Therefore, the QUB School of Law undertook an innovative project to modify a commercially available computer game (Arma3 developed by Bohemia Interactive) to simulate the challenges of applying international humanitarian law (IHL) on the battlefield as a means of engaging students and advancing their understanding of IHL.

IHL is distinct from other law modules in that it is about weighing principles and applying laws that effectively permit the use of force to kill or injure the enemy. As such we used Arma3 to generate gameplay scenarios that tested and engaged students’ understanding through in-class simulations and multiple-choice questions. Scenarios included the use of force and proportionality in a speeding car heading towards a checkpoint with the students deciding whether to fire a warning shot, shoot the wheels or shoot the driver, and then justify their choice based on IHL. Other scenarios included negotiating access for humanitarian assistance, special forces behind enemy lines, investigating war crimes, and directing an armed drone strike. As some students may not have played such complex computer games before, and many had never played Arma3, specific video scenarios were developed and captured for the project. The gameplay was also simplified so that the students simply had to point and click on targets, or answer a series of branching multiple choice questions on their knowledge of IHL and how to act.

The video simulations were first used in a 12-week undergraduate class on IHL, which was split into one-hour lectures on the law and theory followed a couple of days later with a one-hour practical class that drew on the topic using the simulations. As the project developed over the course of two academic years, additional elements were added including weekly use of touch screens and student role-playing to problematise and discuss scenarios. For example, in week 6 we examine the battle for Mosul, getting students to analyse satellite imagery of the city and consider humanitarian issues against military necessity in launching such an attack in a densely populated city. This module culminated in our first annual IHL competition which had five stations ranging from a role-playing hostage scenario, use of Arma3 gameplay in an air support mission, and a series of multiple choice questions using Arma3 generated videos, with the winning team awarded the QUB IHL ‘Paddy Mayne’ Trophy. The classes were also complemented with a module Twitter account (@IHLatQUB), which curated contemporary relevant conflict news that touched upon international humanitarian law issues.

What compelled you to enter the Routledge/ALT Teaching Law with Technology Prize?

Over the course of developing and implementing the project, it became clear that there was limited research available regarding the use of computer simulations in a Law School setting. We were therefore keen to write up an analysis of our project outcomes for a broader audience. We initially presented our draft outcomes at the Irish Association of Law Teachers annual conference in Galway in November 2015, and then as the project developed we have undertaken internal T&L presentations at Queen’s University Belfast and University College Cork. Our colleagues have been very supportive in promoting it as a new way of teaching law, and they suggested that we submit an entry to the Routledge/ALT Teaching with Technology Prize.

Did you face any challenges when embarking on your project, ‘Arma3: Bringing the Battlefield into the Classroom?’

The biggest challenges were working out how to ensure a level playing field so that any student, whether they had gaming experience or not, could engage with the system and that it would sufficiently test all participants’ understanding and knowledge of IHL. This took time in developing scenarios that reflected real world conflicts and the role played by law in them, as well as capturing the videos themselves and putting them into an accessible console package that students could use.

Dr Dug Cubie 

Over the course of the project, we have gained knowledge on the most effective methods of utilising such computer simulations, and therefore have modified our approach to using them in the classroom. Initially, the scenarios were developed as an assessment exercise, which took place at the end of the 12-week undergraduate IHL module. However, based on student feedback and further reflection on our part, it was felt that the students would learn more from the scenarios and use of simulations if they were integrated into the module content from the beginning of the course. Therefore, the simulations are now used as regular formative exercises, allowing for greater discussion and debate on the legality of the actions taken by students in the simulations. 

Why do you think that it’s important to incorporate technology in your lessons?

Technology is increasingly part of our daily lives, whether through social media or the growing gamification of warfare through drones and cyberattacks. Indeed, the recent Wannacry cyberattacks have starkly highlighted the vulnerability of computer systems to evolving technological threats to critical infrastructure. Moreover, reflecting the increasing accessibility of inappropriate and graphic real life videos on the internet, our intention was to utilise technology to provide practical and realistic examples of the application of the law, without showing actual wounds and deaths in combat. Technology therefore complemented rather than supplanted the more traditional lectures and seminars provided on the course, and worked in tandem with student-led interactive presentations, group work and role playing exercises.

Do you have any advice for anyone who is thinking about entering the Routledge/ALT Teaching Law with Technology Prize next year?

Our initial pedagogical intention was to engage our students in real world issues and the impact of decisions they made, as well as expanding the potential learning approaches they would encounter. Applying for the Routledge/ALT prize provided an opportunity for us to present the strengths and challenges of our approach to a broader audience, as well as an opportunity for additional reflection on why we undertook the project and the expected and unexpected outcomes that arose. For us, this has been a great opportunity to meet other lecturers who are trying to find new and innovative ways to engage students through technology. We had no expectation of winning the prize, and so would encourage others with innovative projects to apply and see what happens!

Dr Luke Moffett

Finally – what’s next?

We are going to use the prize money to invest in a newer system that will allow us to put the students into teams and compete in-game as different armed actors. This will provide a more dynamic and real-world emersion for students as they have to reach to changing issues on the ground and what are the appropriate choices based on international humanitarian law. The project is also expanding from one based solely on Queen’s University Belfast to incorporate students at University College Cork, potentially resulting in a joint module whereby the students in both universities will study the same content at the same time. Such an approach will allow for joint learning events – both remotely via video conferencing facilities on both campuses and in-person through cross-institutional collaborations and exercises between the students.