Using The Stop Disasters Game

Stop DisastersA few years ago Amanda reviewed the online Stop Disasters game. This particular simulation dropped off my radar until a colleague recently reminded me of it. Coincidentally I begin teaching an online graduate course on complex humanitarian emergencies in a few weeks, so I decided to incorporate an evaluation of Stop Disasters into the course as an assignment. Here are the instructions that I’ve created for the assignment:

Go to the Stop Disasters website. Choose a language and a scenario (tsunami, hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, or flood). Play the game a few times, until you understand its mechanics–try to win the game. Write an evaluation of the simulation that focuses on:

  • Playability: is Stop Disasters fun, engaging, and educational to play? Are the rules to learn and the user interface easy to navigate?
  • Realism: does Stop Disasters model reality well? Given your knowledge of complex humanitarian emergencies, does the simulation present the user with with realistic choices and outcomes? What course readings support your assessment of the simulation’s realism? Why?
  • Relevance: is Stop Disasters relevant to community members and policymakers? Why? What course readings support your assessment of the simulation’s relevance?

Here is the rubric I created for assessing students’ work (my apologies for blurriness; it’s a function of the screen capture used to snag the image):

Stop Disasters Rubric

I’ll report back after the course ends in December on whether this assignment succeeded or failed.

Death of a Simulation . . . ? Inside Disaster/Haiti

Inside Disaster Screenshot

Over the last few years I’ve been using the Inside Disaster website for teaching about humanitarian emergencies, poverty, and other subjects. Inside Disaster was created by a Canadian team that followed the Red Cross into Haiti in 2010 to document its post-earthquake relief operations. The results of the team’s work included a three-part film documentary, an interactive first-person role-play video simulation, and other original content that it made available for free online. The documentary provided an emotionally-gripping inside look into disaster response operations. The simulation was the best that I’ve seen in its genre. The entire site functioned as an extremely high-quality educational resource. More details about the project can be found in the documentary trailer and in its press kit.

I put the preceding paragraph in the past tense because a few days ago I discovered that the website was down. After some poking around I connected with Katie McKenna, the producer for Inside Disaster and currently the founder and principal of Working Knowledge. Here is her response to my query (published here with her permission):

Inside Disaster is dear to everyone who put it together and we’re so happy it’s been of use to you and other educators.

The problem we’ve run into is that the hosting and streaming costs have gotten prohibitive.  My colleagues who created it have since closed down their company and moved on to other projects. They’ve been paying the hosting costs out of pocket because we all care about Inside Disaster so much.

It costs approximately CAD$2000 (about US$1500) a year for the streaming and hosting charges.  If folks could come up two-thirds of that I’m sure I could raise the rest through allies here. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in contributing a portion of the hosting costs as a license fee to keep things going? If so, they can contact me at katie[at]getworkingknowledge[dot]com.

So I throw this plea out to the digital void: If you have an interest in keeping alive an online tool for teaching about emergency management, humanitarian assistance, journalism, international politics, or Haiti, or just want your students to have access to a great simulation on decision making during a crisis, feel free to contact Ms. McKenna.

Tragedy of the Bunnies: Revised with in-class options

The original February 2015 post was substantially edited in September 2015 to reflect the unavailability of the original online game.  Tragedy of the Bunnies was taken offline in April 2015, but returned again in March 2016.

Tragedy of the Bunnies is a free online game that quickly teaches the basic lesson of the Tragedy of the Commons.  It takes less than 5 minutes to play and was rather an elegant way of introducing the lesson to students, ideally as homework assignment the night before a class discussion on the topic. It has a checkered online history–it was offline for a year from February 2015-2016, and returned again in March 2016. The principles of the game are easily recreated in a classroom exercise, useful to have in case the game goes offline again.

In the online game, you play as a bunny merchant who make their living by catching bunnies and selling them as pets to children.  You start out playing the ‘public game’, where there is an open field of bunnies and you want to catch as many bunnies as possible before your competitors snatch them up.  If you try to avoid catching some, the other merchants will clear the field, leaving you with nothing and the fields empty of bunnies.  Everyone loses in the public game, because the population iss completely depleted and your future employment prospects are bleak.  You then play the private game, where the open field of bunnies is now divided by fences, and you own some of the bunnies outright.  The private game is played in two rounds, and any rabbits left in round 1 would triple in number for round 2, allowing you to maximize the number of rabbits caught while also preserving future stock.

Quick, fun, and instructive, the bunny game is therefore a great teaching tool as an introduction to the basic logic and implications of the depletion of the commons.  As its online presence is unreliable, though, let’s think through some ways we can recreate this in the classroom.

One way would be to simply keep a tally on the board.  Note that there are 30 bunnies in the pasture, draw a simple indicator of each bunny, and designate 3 players. The goal is to get a minimum of 20 bunnies; the winner is the player who gets the most bunnies beyond 20 (failing to get 20 means they lose).  Give each player a different colored marker or chalk, and either have them circle a bunny in term, or give them 10 seconds to circle as many bunnies as they can to claim them.  Tell them that any bunnies left in the pasture will procreate in the next round, but do not allow the players to communicate (as the other two players in the online game were AI-controlled).  If all 3 players seem unwilling to claim any bunnies in the first ‘public’ round, you can invite another student to come up and claim them–after all, the bunnies are on common land and anyone can hunt them.

Next, redraw the bunnies, but divide them into 3 groups of 10, and tell the players they can only hunt their own bunnies.  See if this time, they allow some to stay around and procreate–since they triple in value between round 1 and 2, it would be very easy to get 20 bunnies this way.

You could also involve the entire class in this and make it more physical by planting ‘bunnies’ around the classroom–I used wadded up pieces of colored paper–and letting the students race each other to collect them.  The same rules work–any ‘bunnies’ left undisturbed will triple in the 2nd round.  In the private round, i give each student their own collection of bunnies and let them turn in as many as they want in each round, again with them tripling in the 2nd round.

These in-class versions of the game will take more time than the online version did–perhaps 20-30 minutes, rather than the 5 minutes Tragedy of the Bunnies demanded.  But it is still worthwhile to consider playing out the game with your students, as it really can help them understand this essential concept.





Modelling a mess

Some Greek misunderstanding about having a meal break

One of our perennial themes here at ALPSBlog is the notion of learning from learning, the idea that even when nominal objectives are not achieved, there’s still something (much, even) to be learnt. I get you to try and build a 20m bridge across a lake, using only tissue paper, you fail, but get something from the experience none-the-less.

This past week I was asked (jokingly, I hope) whether I could capture the negotiations on the Greek bailout saga. I’ll assume you’ve heard about this, even if you didn’t follow the details and that, like me, your over-riding impression was one of a chronic failure to find constructive or timely agreement between the various parties. The Onion has its own drole simulation of the forces at work.

Now this is different from the learning from failure model in that it appears to be a situation where failure to find some agreement is not an acceptable option and where all the good options are excluded and all the remaining options come with big costs. Let’s call it a messed-up situation that only gets worse over time.

Now this is really interesting to explore with students, both as a specific case and an example of poor negotiation. As a case-study, the Greek crisis touches on democracy, European integration, party politics, macro-economics and a bunch of other big social science issues: any simulation would be a great entree into these. As a negotiation format, it brings together an interesting combination of domestic and international actors, with varying degrees of resource (and legitimacy) in an environment where rules are highly flexible (which means you could capture much of the fluidity in a classroom).

However, the big question is quite what you want to capture in a simulation.

If the main thing is the inability to find a lasting solution, then you immediately hit an issue with the time and space constraints of the classroom: neither your students nor your university will let you have a simulation that drags on for several years. The only option here would be to have a game where resolution was fundamentally impossible, and each new cohort of students would simply play during their allotted time, to reach a new conditional outcome. However, that comes at a price to the visibility of the whole sequence.

If the aim is to highlight the lack of good options, then it becomes much easier. A few years ago (i.e. nearer the start of the Greek crisis), I wrote a game about austerity politics, modelled very much on the Eurozone’s travails. This game hasn’t got a good outcome (in the sense of optimal for most players), but it could be extended further, either by adding more domestic political constraints/challenges or by creating an external IMF-ish role to make it even more painful. The game already has rounds, so you could just keep on pushing this on, so that everyone get’s even more tetchy with each other.

A third option would be to focus on how the unstructured nature of the negotiation environment matters. Students could be given the task of trying to design a more formalised structure for the participants, with roles and responsibilities, in order to help them see how the different parts fit together. This would then be a critique of the real situation and a way into the underlying tensions.

This last is something that I’m tempted to try with my students this autumn, not least because they will have to learn how to organise themselves in order to be able to discuss productively how others should be organised. Since I’m aware that my students do read these posts, I’ll say no more, other than I can see several ways that they could do this, to better or worse effect.

This last point brings us back to the main issue, namely of identifying your learning objectives. That’s not just true of this, but of all your learning activities. Once you know where you want to end up, the path to get there becomes that much more clear.


Politics in Real Time

No ControlStudents often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:

What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?

A nice complement is:

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.

Madness to the Method

Being a fan of scientific research, I often complete surveys. I recently received a survey by email that asked me to choose between fictional medical treatment options — A and B. In each of the survey’s scenarios, figures for the risk of infection, cancer,  and surgery associated with each treatment option were provided. A screen capture of one of these scenarios in the survey is below.

The survey was sent to me by physicians at a premier public university in the USA who were acting as the principle investigators for the project, which was sponsored by a national non-profit patient advocacy organization. One assumes that the survey was seen by many sets of highly-educated eyeballs before it was distributed to the public, so I was stunned to see that the survey had a very basic methodological flaw.

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