I love this game: the interplay between experience and background in role-playing simulations: insights from MUN participants in Italy and the Netherlands


In recent years, a growing body of literature has widely investigated the impact of role-playing simulations in teaching politics and international relations. While scholars agree that participating in simulations is helpful for the students in developing their skills, the evidence about benefits is more mixed. Moreover, the question whether all students—regardless of their demographic or academic background—benefit similarly from simulations remains largely unanswered. This article, based on a cross-national survey submitted to students from Italy and the Netherlands who have participated in the Model United Nations (MUN), provides an innovative contribution to the current literature by looking at views and opinions of students coming from different educational contexts. Our empirical results suggest that students perceive that MUN increases their skills regardless of their academic and socio-demographic background. The quantitative analysis, based on OLS regression models, reveals that the individual students’ background does not influence their perceived benefit, nor their enjoyment of the experience. MUNs appear to be educational as well as fun for all students, regardless of their age, gender, field of study, seniority, and academic homeland.

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  1. 1.

    For a clear distinction between simulations, role-plays, and games, see Duchatelet et al. (2018). In line with the authors, ‘because students incorporate the role of a specific actor in a predefined situation, we define such [as the Model United NationsMUN] simulations as role-playing simulations’ (2018, 602).

  2. 2.

    For a recent critical perspective on the still limited use of simulations in classroom, see Kollars and Rosen (2016).

  3. 3.

    Scholars have also started to pay attention to students’ attitudes and perceptions of teaching methods before and after simulations (Giovanello et al. 2013; Pettenger et al. 2013; Calossi and Coticchia 2018), investigating how their views change across time.

  4. 4.

    For a broad review of the literature on simulations and IR, see, among others, Lantis (1998), Shellman and Turan (2006), Ripley et al. (2009), Brunazzo and Settembri (2012), Giovanello et al. (2013), Ehrlander and Boylan (2017), and Coticchia et al. (2020).

  5. 5.

    For a definition of critical thinking, see Bok (2006). It is worth noticing how the improvement in students’ critical thinking is one of the main goals of the Model United Nations. See: https://www.nmun.org.

  6. 6.

    Duchatelet et al provide a useful review of the definitions of ‘learning outcomes’ provided by education research. The authors mainly distinguish among cognitive outcomes (which are viewed as the ‘results of those thinking activities that directly lead to learning in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills and so on’), affective outcomes (which are defined as the ‘results of feelings that arise during learning,’ such as motivation), and finally regulative learning outcomes (which attain at ‘the ability to monitor the learning process,’ even by adjusting it to achieve specific goals) of a simulation (Duchatelet et al 2018, 603–604). On this point, see also Vermunt and Vermetten (2004).

  7. 7.

    For an updated review of such attempts, see Davesa and Piros (2019) and Lohmann (2019).

  8. 8.

    It is worth noticing how the literature on the use of simulations tends to be focused on Western classrooms. Some recent exceptions are Meschoulam et al (2019) and Toomey et al (2019).

  9. 9.

    The authors are available to provide additional information on the survey upon requests.

  10. 10.

    The ratio behind grouping students is the following: students who are enrolled in courses that have in their curricula subjects and examinations related to the themes tackled in the simulation (namely Political Science, International Relations, and Public Administration) and students who are enrolled in courses that do not present such subjects and examinations.

  11. 11.

    As explained in the previous paragraph, these variables refer to the students’ self-perception of skills improvement, with a risk—albeit minimal, considering the students of our sample—of self-evaluation biases (Kruger and Dunning 1999).

  12. 12.

    If we consider the 30 coefficients identified by our five IVs in six models (6 * 5 = 30), it is fair to claim that only four statistically significant effects (of which, two at 90%, one at 95% and one at 99%) are not enough to falsify our hypothesis H1b.


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The authors wish to thank Lorenzo De Sio and Laura Neack for their contribution during the various stages of this research. A special acknowledgement goes to association ‘Consules’ in Rome, without which the implementation of the survey would have not been possible.

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Correspondence to Lorenzo Cicchi.

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Cicchi, L., Calossi, E., Onderco, M. et al. I love this game: the interplay between experience and background in role-playing simulations: insights from MUN participants in Italy and the Netherlands. Eur Polit Sci (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41304-020-00277-8

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  • Simulation
  • Model United Nations
  • Role-playing
  • Teaching
  • Skills
  • Perceptions
  • Gender
  • Student learning
  • Political science
  • Active learning