A complex challenge

"Right-wing and far-right parties are electable in our democracy and should therefore also be represented in simulation games." - Consent or not? 

"Playing the role of a right-wing/extremist party helps participants to critically analyse this party." - Is this true or not? 

"If the AfD is given a special role in the simulation game, this strengthens right-wing narratives about 'censorship'." - Do you agree? 

We also put these theses to a vote at an internal meeting, and the opinions were very different. For every convincing presentation of one point of view, there were quickly convincing pleas for the opposite or for the positions in between. To us, this seems symptomatic of current social debates about the right way to deal with right-wing extremist and anti-democratic movements.  

At a time when politics is increasingly characterised by polarisation and the rise of right-wing populist and far-right movements, we, and arguably all political educators, are faced with the challenge of educating young people about democracy and political processes in a way that is both informative and responsible. One specific question that concerns us in our work is how we deal with the representation and involvement of extreme right-wing parties in our simulation games. 

What is the problem anyway? 

We are faced with various dilemmas and several bad alternatives: 

If we allow extreme right-wing actors to play a role in simulation games, we put part of the group in the situation of having to represent such positions. This can be very uncomfortable for these participants, but also for the rest of the group, who have to listen to and experience these positions. This can be (re-)traumatising for people who have experienced flight, for those affected by racism and for members of all other groups who are discriminated against by right-wing actors.  

If, on the other hand, we leave out the extreme right-wing groups, the simulation games may no longer fulfil the requirement of meaningfully depicting reality. Can we run an election campaign simulation game without including a right-wing party that is polling at 20% in the real world? We could be accused of turning a blind eye to a social reality that (unfortunately) cannot be denied. And that we would deprive the participants of the opportunity to engage with the positions that they encounter in their real lives. 

Now you could say that we include those actors, e.g. the relevant parties at German or European level, in the game, but "defuse" their role information. The party in the simulation game could believe the influence of the EU is too great and should be curbed, and it finds the measures against climate change excessive. However, it is not racist and does not agitate against refugees. The danger here would be to trivialise the real parties and paint a false picture of their intentions. "They're not that bad" could be the - unwanted - learning effect. 

Strategies and solutions

We have recently discussed this several times in our permanent team and with our freelancers. In doing so, we have realised: There are no easy answers, and yet we have to make decisions about how we specifically deal with the issue in our formats. We therefore considered several adjustments that would take effect before, during and after the simulation. The guiding principle was that it is important to engage with right-wing populist and extreme right-wing positions, but that this should be done on a meta-level rather than by identifying with these positions in a role, which is typical of the simulation game method. In concrete terms, this means: 

Before the simulation game: We start our workshops with a method that conveys democratic values in a playful way and actively involves the participants. This method not only helps to break the ice, but also lays the foundation for a shared understanding of the values that underpin our society. We then define the rules of the workshop together with the participants to create a safe and respectful framework. This step is crucial because it builds a bridge from the content of the workshop - e.g. democracy and elections - to the framework of the workshop by looking at the classroom as a society in miniature. The emphasis is on participation, pluralism and equality, clearly communicating that discrimination and hate speech have no place.

Transparency in dealing with extreme right-wing parties: We openly explain why we avoid the direct presentation of these positions and instead focus on a critical discussion at a meta-level. In this way, we make it clear that it is important to understand these positions without participants having to identify with them. At this point, we also explain why we treat the AfD, for example, differently to other parties, even if it competes in democratic elections and is successful: it represents positions that reject democracy and pluralism of opinion and that violate human rights, it works together with right-wing extremist actors and, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, is in parts definitely right-wing extremist. 

In the simulation game: The positions of right-wing populist or right-wing extremist actors are presented at various points in the simulation game, but they are not represented by participants in the context of taking on a role. For example, although the AfD appears in our simulation game on the election campaign in Germany ("Democracy Lab") and can also be voted for at the end, it is not played as a role by participants. Instead, the game leader places the party, for example, on the positioning beam of opinions on central election campaign topics or shows examples of election posters. However, care is taken not to give this presentation too much space in order to avoid falling for the party's self-presentation as the only alternative to all other parties. This also includes highlighting and discussing the differences in the political programmes of the democratic parties. 

However, the main part of the discussion takes place in the evaluation after the game. By presenting real party programmes in line with the workshop topics, we encourage critical reflection among the participants. A "Wahl-O-Mat light" also enables participants to compare their own positions with those of the parties. Depending on the group, the discussion about how to deal with extreme right-wing actors is also raised from the simulation game to a societal level. What parallels do they see between how they deal with them in the simulation game and, for example, discussions about marginalising or banning such parties and groups? How would they decide for themselves? Finally, they are given perspectives for their own commitment to the values of an open and democratic society. 


We are aware that all the approaches described are only the first steps; we are in a process of learning and experimentation. And for the time being, they only relate to the use of our existing simulation games. When designing new formats, other questions arise and new opportunities present themselves. In future, for example, we will pay more attention to developing simulation game scenarios that offer different approaches. Instead of simulating election campaigns, which are a particularly polarising part of politics, we can focus on social negotiation processes that are more concerned with factual issues and democratic alternatives. Instead of placing the issue of European migration policy in the European Council, where the voices in favour of isolation now dominate, civil society voices can be heard more. We are already doing a lot of this, and in some cases we have been offering it for a long time, but we are now even more sensitised to these issues. 

A much more fundamental debate concerns the simulation game method itself. We have been saying for a long time that simulation games are a great method, but not always and not for every (learning) purpose. We will continue along this path and work even more modularly. For example, we offer argumentation training against right-wing extremist slogans as well as creative formats for developing your own solutions and ideas. We are looking forward to the next steps and welcome suggestions and dialogue! 

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