Co-creating a zombie apocalypse: Learning how to deal with failure through play

Photo credit: pixabay, currens, CC0

Emily Hochkins, a fourth year veterinary student working towards her veterinary teaching qualification, was offered, along with several others, the opportunity to take part in designing an optional “negotiation skills” class for first year students. In this post, she describes how they designed a zombie apocalypse scenario to help students learn about dealing with failure…

The original idea of this “negotiation skills” class was to design a game that the students would not be able to win.  This class was intended as a fun learning experience, as most of veterinary teaching is lecture or practice-based and are rarely intended as purely fun, or based around “play”.

We ended up designing an activity based on a zombie apocalypse scenario, set in the town of Roslin – the last uninfected town in the whole of Scotland. In this activity, students had goals both for the whole town of Roslin as well as individual personal goals, but these were deliberately in conflict. If everyone’s personal goals were achieved, they could not help but fail to save the town of Roslin from becoming infected (the overarching goal of the game). There were different story pathways for the students to follow: ‘the news story’, ‘the mayoral coup’, and ‘the trial story’. Each pathway would lead to a difficult outcome intended to provoke interesting behaviours and spark discussion. Importantly, whichever pathway was followed, the students would always lose the game; they would face failure. Thus, the activity was designed to test students’ ability to interact with each other outwith everyday life, and to allow them to discover the effects of failure, through acting diplomatically or unethically, in a free space without any consequences.

We fourth years ran the eventual classes, working with groups of around twenty first-year students. We enticed students in with a big, mysterious prize – to the point where we wrote a number of fake reviews from students who had “played the game last year”.  The students were given an hour and a half to watch introductory videos and then run through the scenario, followed by a thirty minute break, and then a debriefing session.

Photo credit: Amber_Avalona, CC0

The students played through the scenario mostly independently, with prompting from us at certain points if necessary to trigger set story pathways along different storylines. Members of staff flitted between rooms in case of difficulty. We wanted to observe whether they would play within the given rules or try to bend them to further their own goals. The only real rule was that the students were not permitted to move between sectors without a “security guard” to restrict movement a little and allow us better observation of such a large group.

Outcomes and reflections

We expected to have to prompt more interactions between the students, but after a few seconds of initial confusion at being suddenly thrown into a mostly self-directed game, they were unexpectedly enthusiastic at getting into the scenario. The students reacted as expected with regards to their personal goals: most students were so focused on their private agenda that little attention was paid to biosecurity in the face of an outbreak. This gave us the perfect angle to give feedback with regards to failure in the debriefing session.

The storylines we had designed, however, were not followed as anticipated. The ‘news story’ scenario which was intended to bring about the ‘mayoral coup’ did not occur because, upon discovering that the story the journalists wanted to broadcast showed them in a bad light, the mayor “lost” the document with the story written on it. This sort of unethical behaviour was fascinating to watch as it was totally unanticipated! The ‘trial story’ scenario was not played out either because the judge decided that they did not trust either of the lawyers since neither had any physical proof of their arguments. Thus, the judge refused to pass judgement whatsoever (including “Not Proven”). Following this, the procurator fiscal was shot by a drone and that rather put an end to the trial. The ‘mayoral coup’ did end up occurring, however. Once the town’s original mayor had also been shot by a drone, the HR manager in charge of promotions promoted themselves to mayor instead, and the group (understandably) objected to this unscrupulous behaviour! All in all, this was a fascinating group to watch interact.

However, we did have a slight failure of our own. Technical difficulties in one of the rooms at the start of the session meant that two groups had to squash into one room to watch the introductory videos, which was suboptimal. This meant that our session was interrupted a little as the students were disturbed in between hearing about the impending zombie apocalypse and starting the scenario, which flashed them back to reality a little, whereas the other groups got straight into the game.

I think our session went well enough regardless. All of the students I came into contact with after the class were very enthused by this teaching style, and excitedly discussing their part in each scenario on the bus home at the end of the day, which I would count as a resounding success! I believe this activity has the potential to be developed and improved further, and re-run in future years, with more planning time. I would also develop the introductory videos further as we filmed for over an hour but only two small zombie shots were included in the final cut, and I think a little more explanation would have kicked the game off a bit quicker. However, for a first attempt at learning through play, I think this went spectacularly.

Emily Hochkins

Emily Hochkins is a 4th year veterinary student from Lincolnshire who wants to work towards conservation as a wildlife veterinarian when she graduates. This will involve educating members of the public, which is why she became involved with the negotiation skills class as part of her Undergraduate Certificate in Veterinary Medical Education.

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