Wealth Inequality Game

Here is a game that I recently ran in my class.  This was one of those occasions where I was thinking about how to teach a particular set of lessons, developed the game during the drive to campus, and decided to run it, half-baked as it was.  Despite that, it worked very well. As always, feel free to use and adapt in your classes–just let me know in the comments how it went!  A version of the below post was also recently published in the May 2014 ALIAS newsletter.

Wealth Allocation Inequality Game

Description:

This is a very simple game that helps illustrate some important ideas about wealth inequality, voting rules in international financial institutions, and the connection between wealth, merit, and fairness.

In the game, students must decide through discussion how to distribute a resource—a coin worth extra credit–amongst themselves.  In each round, there are a different amount of coins available for distribution, and the rules for distribution change.  At the beginning of the game, there are enough coins for everyone to have one, but they become scarcer as the game goes on, and those with more coins from prior rounds are given advantages that makes it easier for them to acquire coins in later rounds.  Those who receive fewer coins in early rounds are actually silenced in later rounds.

The point of the game is to illustrate how in the international economic system, wealth can beget wealth, and the power is in the hands of the wealthy.  Those who are poor tend to remain poor, and become voiceless in the discussion.  Using extra credit ties the exercise to students feelings about merit and fairness, and helps us explore the role of these qualities in wealth and the behavior of the wealthy.  Due to this, the game can easily be adapted to lessons on poverty, structural inequality, and even the political process of redistribution of income.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Give students a fun and engaging way to explore weighty concepts of global wealth inequality
  2. Provide an application of weighted voting that helps students understand how such rules matter in terms of outcomes.
  3. Illustrate one set of arguments on how rich countries stay rich and poor countries stay poor.
  4. Help students examine their thoughts and emotions about fairness and merit into and use it as a springboard for discussion about the obligations of wealthy states to poor ones.

 Equipment needed: some kind of monetary unit, such as fake coins, poker chips, printed money, etc., but with no value denoted on it.

# of students: tested fine with 20, but is easily scaled by size of the class; in very large classes you might split the students into groups by section to keep it manageable.

 Prior knowledge: none necessary, as this is an organic game (Kollars and Rosen 2013), but should be done in conjunction with a lesson on north-south relations and global inequality.  It can also work easily as an inroad for discussing poverty and inequality on a more local scale.

 Introductory Instructions: Tell the students that you are going to make a certain number of coins available for them to distribute amongst themselves, and that there will be several rounds to the game.  Each coin will have a set value of extra credit (EC) points (I structure my classes to be worth 10000 points so that EC is generally not overwhelming); the number of coins they have at the end of the game will determine how much EC they earn.

 Additional Instructions for the Instructor:  Do not tell students what each round is about; only tell them the rules. After you set the rules for each round, resist the urge to interfere in the discussion. In fact, studiously ignore the students until they have reached a decision for the round and inform you of that.  Don’t answer any of their questions, and don’t help them.  Instead, focus on recording their reactions and arguments so you can return to them for the debrief.

Students may want to redistribute their coins at various points in the game; it is up to you whether you want to let them.  I usually let them do so in between rounds, but not during.

 Gameplay:  The game has four rounds.  At the start of each round, you put a number of coins on a central table, instruct the students on the decision-making procedures, and then tell them the current value of the coins.  Feel free to change the rounds up and adapt to your group’s gameplay.  They always have the option to leave the coins in the common pool.  (You can, if you like, allow this to count as an investment, where coins in the common pool generate new coins for future rounds).

Round 1: Consensus + Plentiful Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = number of students in the class.  Decision on distribution of coins must be by consensus.  Coin value = 5 points of EC each.

Round 2: Majoritarianism + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets 1 vote.  Coin value =5 points of EC each.

At the end of Round 2, record the coin count of each student; this is needed for the next round.

Round 3: Weighted Voting + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets a number of votes equal to the # of coins they have.  No redistribution of coins is allowed until after the round is over.  Anyone with zero coins at the start of this round has no votes, and in fact is not allowed to talk at all during the discussion. Coin value = 10 EC points each.

Round 4: Absolute Rulers + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available =# of students/4.  They are given directly to the two students with the highest # of coins; they may choose to redistribute them or not.  They can accept arguments from the other students, but the decision is entirely theirs; the coins belong to them and they can keep them if they wish. Coin value = 10 EC points each.

 Debrief:

Following the Steinwachs (1992) model of debriefing, start with unpacking the emotional reaction to the game.  Frustration and anger can flare up during this game, if perceived ‘undeserving’ students get large amounts of extra credit, or if the EC is distributed equally and those with greater need feel slighted.  One the emotions get unpacked a bit, move on to the second stage: analysis.  Ask them about their decision-making process, focusing in particular on how they decided who should get EC—were they committed to equality, to rewarding students who had demonstrated merit (via strong class performance), or to helping those students in need (those who admitted to low grades)?  Did considerations of effort weigh on their minds?  Did some students sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of others, and if so, why?  The third stage is where you connect the game back to the course material.  In an IR class, you might discuss how the game illustrated the concept of weighted voting, and whether that resulted in desirable outcomes.  Or you could discuss whether their anger at the results should be redirected toward the equivalent actors in the international system (that is, if the wealthy students refused to redistribute their EC, and this made them angry, are they also angry at wealthy states who only redistribute a small amount of their GDP?)  I also found it useful to discuss perceptions of the poor—particularly the commonly held belief that wealthy people have more money because they work harder, and poorer people are simply lazy.

A fourth stage of debrief is always useful in a new game: ask the students what aspects of the game help them understand these concepts, and which don’t, and get feedback so you can adjust the game for future incarnations.

 Adaptations, Applications and Related Exercises:

This game can easily be adapted to lessons in other courses, such as structural inequality, local or national poverty, and decision-making,

You can also run the game by creating fake students, or having students play a role, where the information is very stark and available.  So each player has a given percentage grade in the course which can be openly shared, and students can choose to allocate or not a pool of extra credit to individuals.  You can then also make the allocation pool up from given grades—so a student with a 90% can choose to award 10% points to someone with a 50% if they wish.  The abstract nature of this helps them put into perspective the amount of extra credit being awarded (a grade moving from 50% to 52% is generally viewed as more acceptable than a single student getting 170 points in coins while others only get 10 or 20), and allows us to look at the differences between awarding gains (an extra credit allocation pool) v. losses (where points must be redistributed from those who already earned them).

If using the game for global inequality, a good follow up exercise is the Global Inequality Game in the Jet Wiki, where students attempt to guess at the distribution of global population and wealth.  As that game is more informational, it serves as a nice follow up for this one.

References:

Kollars, N. and Rosen, A.M. (2013) “Simulations as Active Assessment? Typologizing by Purpose and Source. Forthcoming in Journal of Political Science Education 9, 2 (2013).

Steinwachs, B. (1992). “How to Facilitate a Debriefing.” Simulation & Gaming 23(2): 186-95.

2 thoughts on “Wealth Inequality Game

  1. Do you collect the coins between each round or does the number of coins that becomes available at the start of the next get added on to what is already available?

  2. Great question. Let the coins accumulate–this helps the inequality develop, with decisions early on having ramifications later that are often perceived as ‘unfair’ by students with fewer coins–which is exactly what we want.

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