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Professor Neville Morley developed the games through his research on the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, whose ideas help people understand war, politics and power.

Pupils inspired by the Ancient Greeks as they learn about the secrets of political power

Teenagers around the country may soon have the answer to dealing with rebellious MPs and Brexit as they train in a unique way to understand politics and power with tips from the Ancient Greeks and games like “rock-paper-scissors”.

A new series of workshops, developed through a collaboration between University of Exeter academics and educational charity The Politics Project, shows GCSE and A-level students how games and classical political thought can help them to understand democracy and how politicians negotiate with one another.

Discussing politics in this way also gives the young people a chance to talk about how they are already affected by power in their own lives, for example through bullying or their relationship with their parents.

The workshops, first used by students from Queen Elizabeth’s Community College in Crediton,  culminate with a ‘digital surgery’ with a politician from their community, where the students can draw on their new understanding of power in asking questions about how it works in practice.

Professor Neville Morley, from the University of Exeter, developed the games through his research on the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, whose ideas help people understand war, politics and power.

“Brexit has obviously made everyone very aware of how complex politics can be, but what Thucydides wanted to do was tell us that the world is always complex and difficult,” Professor Morley said.

“But it’s pointless just to tell young people something is complicated and unfair, it’s too abstract. Playing games helps them think more about the issues and discuss the role of power and responsibility in a more concrete way. We’ve found this does lead to young people talking about different sorts of power relationships they’ve seen themselves, for example relationships with parents or bullying they have been a victim of or witnessed.”

Teenagers will take part in three sessions where they will learn about and discuss different types of power relationships and apply them to their own experiences.

In the first session they will play a version of the old rock, paper, scissors, with an Ancient Greek twist. Each player represents an ancient Greek city state, trying to survive in the anarchic world of the fifth century BC, choosing between strategies of war, diplomacy and plotting. Some states are more powerful and more likely to win confrontations than others.

The second session involves the students playing a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ game inspired by The Melian Dialogue, a famous section in Thucydides’ history where a powerful state demanded that a much weaker city should surrender to them. Playing in pairs or in the whole group, they have to make a series of decisions and explore what it feels like to be the weaker side, or the more powerful, in high-stakes negotiations.

During the third session pupils discuss the kinds of power held by different groups in society, who has control over them, and the role of politicians. This then prepares them for their final session, the digital surgery with a local or national politician.

The workshops are currently being trialled with students in their last year of GCSEs and in the sixth form at Queen Elizabeth’s Community College in Crediton, who are giving up their lunchtimes to participate in the sessions, taught by Professor Morley and Professor Lynette Mitchell from the University of Exeter’s Department of Classics. They will then be opened to schools around the country via The Politics Project, an organisation set up to build links between young people and politicians and promote political literacy. The programme is designed to be run by teachers themselves and can be used in politics or citizenship lessons, as well as being an extracurricular activity.

Professor Morley said: “Playing games is a perfect way of raising and discussing issues and getting teenagers to think about the world around them. It’s important now and always for pupils preparing for adulthood to understand power, and how this influences all sorts of relationships. By using the ancient world, we can also give them a glimpse into history – but above all this is about drawing on the power of ancient Greek ideas to help us make sense of our own world.”

Professor Mitchell said: “Since Thucydides wanted to engage his readers as critical political thinkers, he would have given his full weight to this project.”

Harriet Stephens, from the Politics Project, said: "Understanding Power is a fantastic next step for our Digital Surgeries Programme and provides a really exciting opportunity to engage students in politics, their communities and in having their say. We are really excited to be collaborating with the University of Exeter on this project to create some really exciting resources that support young people to think deeply and differently. 

“In these troubled political times it has never been more important that we continue to build relationships and trust between young people and politicians, and we hope that in the future every student will have a chance to have a conversation with a politician during their time at school."

Date: 22 May 2019

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