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.

Government in Our Lives: First Day of Class Idea for US Politics

As the semester starts up, its always a good idea to generate ideas on how to start the first day of class.  My preference is always to start off with something on-topic that can generate discussion, rather than opening with introductions or syllabus review.  I have a lot of non-majors in my class, many of whom think politics is boring, and my goal is to show them from the first class that politics has an impact on their lives and thus is worth paying attention to.  The challenge is finding something to do that does not require any actual knowledge of politics–picking a current event, for example, may cause students who do not follow the news to tune out completely.

My solution, which has worked fairly well, is to ask them to name one way in which government has had an impact on their lives that day (I usually teach at night; you could easily make it that week).  At first, they often struggle to come up with anything. Then a few answers start coming in: someone works in a government job, or has a family member in the military.  Next, taxes tend to pop up–income taxes, sales taxes, etc, and educational systems, including student loans.  Soon they are talking about roads and driving regulations (speed limits and cameras, licenses, registration, insurance), regulations (particularly on medications and food), minimum wage, the post office.  I usually have to remind them about clean air, drinking water, sewage systems, marriage laws, money, international trade, and feeling secure from foreign invasion.

As each new idea is offered, I ask if it applies to anyone else, and usually I see a sea of hands.  By the end I charge them to find one thing on their person or in their lives that day that has NOT in some way been influenced by the government–and its a struggle.  I invite them to look in their bags or wallets to find something, but so far they’ve yet to come up with anything.

The nice thing about this opener is that it does not require any outside knowledge of the students.  Everyone can participate whether they are a political junkie or a skeptic, and I usually see very high levels of participation particularly after the first couple of contributions and students realize the scope of government involvement in their lives.  But by the end, its hard to refute that government and politics affects their lives, thus providing a rationale for engagement in the course.

How do you start off your course? I’d love to hear some other ideas.

Climate Change Games, Pt. 1: Climate Challenge

Having finished my series exploring Poverty Games out there on the internet, I want to turn to another topic that can be difficult to teach and where games may help.

Climate change can be a tough subject to teach, particularly when you only have a single class session on it.  A group of students may have widely different levels of knowledge on the subject, and many may share the skepticism of 40% of Americans who doubt that climate change is either happening at all or due to man-made activities.  That can be a substantial hurdle to jump if you want to have a discussion on policy options to tackle climate change–if they don’t believe that greenhouse gases play a role in global warming, then there is little point to discussing strategies to reduce the amount of GHGs going into the atmosphere.

As my primary research is on this subject, I think a lot about how to teach climate change.  And I’m always on the lookout for games that assist me with the problems of teaching climate change.

Today’s game does not really help with the dilemma I outlined above. It requires some buy-in from the students that climate change is a problem worth solving–indeed, that bias is built into the game, where the leaders of various regions of the world all miraculously agree that climate change is a problem and are generally willing to adopt costly measures to combat it.  I would love to be in a world with this political reality.  So playing this game will require either existing buy-in from your students, or some preparation on your part to show them the data on the correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature.  That data, combined with polls of climate scientists on the topics, plus a metaphor about insurance* generally get my students to the point of accepting the basic premise that this is an issue worthy of discussion.

The game is Climate Challenge, sponsored by the BBC.  Players take on the leadership of the ‘European Nations’ and over the course of ten terms lasting one hundred years must choose what policies to implement to try to mitigate climate change.  Most of the game focuses on the domestic angle, with players choosing from amongst policies at different levels and areas: national  (such as a fuel tax or planting forests)  industry (perhaps switching from coal to natural gas); trade (you can import or export energy, water, food, and green technologies); local (promote windfarms or energy efficiency standards); and household (such as promoting recylcling).  In a given turn there are dozens of policy options, some of which are only available based on previous adoptions, but you can only choose six. Each policy affects your country’s resources, including money, energy, food, water, and pollution.  Investing in water infrastructure at the local level, for example, costs a lot of money but increases the amount of water available.

There is also an approval rating factor to consider.  Some policies–such as build more roads, or subsidize aviation–increase pollution but are quite popular with the people.  Public opinion is indicated through sample quotes accompanying each policy as well as a dial on the screen. Failure to maintain your approval rating can result in you being kicked out of office. I managed to get kicked out on turn three–and the game immediately ended.

There is an international dimension to the game that is supposed to mimic the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, where you ‘negotiate’ with other leaders to agree to emission targets.  The only negotiating tactic is a straight up bribe, though, and generally as long as Europe does its share of GHG reduction the other countries will approve reductions with little effort on the part of the player.

At the end of the game you receive scores on three areas: Environment, Economy, and Popularity.  In my first run through the game I scored 85%, 0%, and 100%, respectively.  I had no idea that Economy was measured, so on the last turn I spent all my euros on popular measures like increasing pensions.

Overall, Climate Challenge is really fun.  Its very easy to learn with a clear interface and there is a tutorial to guide new players.  It is also very effective as a teaching tool, as it quickly and visually gives students an understanding of the different policy options that exist, the various levels of government that need to be involved, and the tradeoffs required to successfully combat climate change. A fuel tax, for example, is very effective at both increasing money and reducing pollution, but it is very unpopular.  In the game this is easily handled by going for a very popular policy to balance out the losses in the polls–and this provides a good point for discussion with the students about how true the game is to the political realities of addressing climate change.

Best use for this game is as an independent homework assignment before a class on climate change, with either questions for them to answer and turn in or a discussion in-class to act as a debriefing.

Fun: 2/4  Not sure how enthusiastic students will be about picking policies, although the min/maxers among us might get a kick out of it.

Ease of use: 4/4 very clear interface, and a tutorial is available.

Polisci Class Applicability: 4/4, as it really helps students understand the political challenges of climate change, and in a way that provides lots of room for discussion during the debrief.

*I point out that lots of people get fire insurance for their houses even though the chance of their house burning down is small, because we want to have some measure of protection in case an unlikely but catastrophic event happens.  We can generally agree that if climate change is real, it has the potential to cause a host of catastrophic problems (such as rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, droughts, and floods, increased disease vectors, excess heat, etc).  While its certainly possible that climate change is a hoax, that climate scientists are completely wrong–I ask them if they are willing to bet everything that this is true, and not take out perhaps some insurance just in case.  While this does not convince them all, it generally gets them to the point of willing to have a conversation about the issue, which is ultimately what I care about the most.

Online Educational Games: Natural Disaster Preparation with ‘Stop Disasters’

I came across a neat online resource that compiles a bunch of online games available for educators (Chang et al, 2009).  Naturally I immediately started playing some of them, and I’ll share my findings here.

The first game is called ‘Stop Disasters’, available at  Its a simulation of different disasters, including hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.  You act as the city planner for a particular area, and with a set budget have to decide how to prepare for a potential disaster while balancing other community needs (such as tourism or agriculture).  As you make decisions, helpful info boxes pop up to let you know how different measures make a difference. After twenty minutes, disaster strikes and you get a report on how well you met the objectives of the scenario, how many lives were lost, and whether or not you are fired from your position.  You also get a score that can be compared with other players.

The game is pretty fun.  I played through the tsunami scenario and completely messed up the first time.  I spent all my money on a seismic early warning sensor and other defenses, and not enough upgrading buildings with foundations and stilts or providing education on tsunami signs or clear evacuation procedures.  Building on high ground helps a lot, too.  The second time around was naturally easier, although 29 people still died, and I’m determined to play until everyone is saved.  Other pros of the game are that it is very easy to learn with a clean interface, it only takes 20 minutes (less if you complete your defenses early and want the disaster to happen sooner), and its available in several languages (Spanish, French, German, and Madarin (i think) in addition to English).

The downside is the problem that you know that in 20 minutes or so, disaster will strike.  Thus you have a strong incentive to build defenses.  Objectives such as ‘protecting livelihoods’ really mean ensuring that such buildings and businesses survive the disaster, rather than giving you a real choice in how you spend your money.  The game would be more useful if players had to balance keeping the economy going with disaster preparation, without a 100% chance of the disaster occurring.

Still, the game is fun and a useful way to start a discussion about why, if we know exactly what needs to be done to minimize losses during a disaster, these measures are not always taken.  Then the 100% chance of disaster becomes a starting point for the conversation, rather than defeating the point of the exercise.

This game could be used as a homework assignment in anticipation of a class on government responses to disasters, but it could also be used in-class.  The easy way would be to take the students to an electronic classroom, but it could be done in a room with internet and projector.  Simply choose your scenario ahead of time and write out their budget and the costs of all the different options on a handout.  Put the game up on the projector, put them into small groups, and give them 15 minutes to make their decisions.  Then insert the choices into the map, push the ‘start disaster’ button, and see what happens.  You can do this pretty quickly with each group and see whose plan worked best, and then discuss why.

Decisions, Decisions

Here’s another idea from Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman credits economist Thomas Schelling (author of Choice and Consequence) as the original creator; I’ve slightly altered the  version Kahneman presents in his book. The exercise demonstrates how framing, emotion, and moral values affect how people make decisions, and how this effect flies in the face of rational choice. It can easily be modified  for application in a number of contexts. Here it is:

Present students with two fictional developing countries, A and B. The governments of each country need to collect tax revenue to pay for public services. The governments also decide that taxes on family income will vary according to the number of a family’s dependent children.

The government of country A decides that for adult couples with children, the tax exemption for the wealthy should be larger than that for the poor.

Ask students if they agree or disagree with the decision of government A. They will most likely find it to be highly objectionable.

The government of country B takes the opposite approach and imposes a tax surcharge on adult couples that have no children. It decides that childless adult couples who are poor will pay a penalty that is just as large as childless adult couples who are wealthy.

Ask students if they agree or disagree with the decision of government B. They will most likely also find this highly objectionable.

Then explain that students cannot logically reject both proposals because they are economically equivalent. The only difference between the scenarios is that A presents a childless couple as the default and for B the default is couples with children.

Kahneman points out that responses to questions like these are highly dependent upon how the questions are framed. If I were to introduce some additional but functionally irrelevant detail into one of the scenarios — such as “because wealthy citizens in country A typically invest much more money in their children’s educations than poor citizens” — many people would respond differently.

Magic Genie: Quick Exercise on Politics, Distribution, Decision Rules, and Deaths

I did a quick exercise with my intro IR class yesterday that reinforced a lesson on the meaning of politics and its distributive implications, showed them how decision rules matter, and served as a jumping off point for a discussion about Mueller’s arguments about the overblown nature of the terrorist threat. The exercise is very simple, and only takes about five-ten minutes.

I split students into groups of four and gave them one of the following two prompts:

Prompt One

The magic genie of Governlandia is willing to grant you one wish!  Good for you.  Unfortunately, this wish is somewhat restricted—there’s no wishing for more wishes, for one.  In fact, the only thing she’s willing to let you wish for is to permanently cure a single ailment for the world.  Here are the ailments you are allowed to cure:

Terrorism (ends all terrorist attacks permanently)

Cancer (people can still get cancer, but there is a complete and effective cure)

Bumper Cars (deaths by auto accident become a thing of the past—impacts cause no damage)

Global Warming (the temperature will be regulated to prevent largescale climate change)

Nuclear Weapons (all weapons will be permanently disabled, including new ones built)

Bring one extinct animal back to life (T-Rex, dodo’s, wooly mammouths, whatever)

 Prompt 2

The magic genie of Governlandia has granted you one wish—a gift of 100 BILLION dollars.  Good for you.  Unfortunatley, this gift is somewhat restricted—you can only spend it on a handful of things, none of them for your own selfish gain.  Scientists estimate that investing the entire $100 billion in any one area will completely solve that problem; anything less, and the problem will continue.  However, you may distribute the money however you see fit.

Eradicate Terrorism

Universal, unlimited health care

Make Roads Completely Safe

Stop Global Warming

Destroy all Nuclear Weapons

Preserve all Existing Species from Extinction

Groups did not know that there were two different prompts.  When they had made their decision, they posted them on the board, and we discussed why they came to the conclusion they did.

I used this to note a few things.  First, no one gave any attention to the animal rights issues, which led to a discussion about the value of human v. animal life and how some issues can be seen as ‘luxury’ issues. Second, the method of decision making mattered: groups that were allowed to divy up money did so, but had a less intense discussion than those that had to choose only one policy area.  All the groups prioritized health care issues, and we discussed the criteria they use to evaluate the use of funds.  This led us to revisit the definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ and segued into a discussion of Mueller’s work on whether or not terrorism is a threat and how people react to it.

Basically this was a neat little 5 minute activity that took no time at all to whip up and explain, but generated numerous discussion points for the remainder of the class.  If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

20 Minute Interest Groups

Interest Groups and the Bureaucracy are in a constant battle for my least favorite material to teach in my intro US course.  They are just not as sexy as elections and the media or even the judiciary, and every time I get to this part of the course, I want to throw everything out the window and rebuild the course from the ground up just for the chance to add some excitement.

For now, however, I try to alleviate this particular instinct with simulations.  Here’s one on interest groups that I’ve found effective for starting off the class and getting students to understand the role and strategies of interest groups without having to lecture.

This sim comes to us courtesy of WW Norton, who do not require use of their textbook to use the resources on their site.  The Interactive Politics Simulation: Interest Groups puts students in the role of either an environmental group or a drug company and gives them a budget of $200k to spend on various strategies for influencing an evenly matched legislature to vote in your favor.  You can hire a lobbyist, donate to committee chairs, party leadership, or friends or enemies of your cause; alternatives include preparing a supreme court brief, recruiting members, or having a press conference.  Some strategies work in either case–hiring a lobbyist is always a good idea–while others work only for one group or the other, such as a press conference, which only helps the environmental group.

I usually do this at the start of the lesson, but have with success used it in the middle or end of the lesson, depending on when it makes sense to talk about interest group tactics. I let the class pick a role as a group, and then divide them into small groups to discuss how they would spend the money (5 minutes).  Proposals are put on the board and discussion ensues as to the merits of different strategies (5 minutes).  Once we decide on an overall class strategy, I enter in their choices and we discuss how they did (5 minutes).  Then we debrief, and they take notes on the different strategies interest groups use to affect policy (5 minutes). Mission accomplished, sans lecture!

The students seem to like it.  The last time I used this, one student passionately argued against  a press conference for the drug company, but was outvoted by students who thought that spending the most money possible was a good idea. His exultation when they lost votes was fun to watch, and it led to a neat discussion about quality v. quantity.

Are there other ideas out there for making bureaucracy and/or interest groups more exciting?