From Tabletop Games to the Classroom

Today we have the first in a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

One of the projects I’m working on at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focuses on effective pedagogies for teaching ethics. Simulations, of the kind that readers of this blog are familiar with, are one way of engaging students by grounding abstract ethical theories in particular situations. Recently, I’ve reframed the project more generally: using game design principles to create fun and effective learning experiences.

Two books on game design that I can recommend for teachers are Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun and James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Lerner argues that game design principles can be used to redesign political institutions and reinvigorate democracy, but his review of game design theory is useful for anyone interesting in implementing game design ideas in different contexts, and I use his taxonomy of game mechanics as a starting point. Continue reading

Public Health Simulation

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor Politics at Emory & Henry College, written with Roger Yu, PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Public health crises require coordination between scientists, government officials, and the public. This past summer, we had the opportunity to combine courses on biotechnology (taught by Roger) and international relations (taught by Sarah). We created a simulation to illustrate some of the challenges officials face when dealing with epidemics. Prior to the simulation, students in the biotechnology course learned about viruses and watched 2011 film Contagion. The international relations students focused on state responses to the recent Ebola crisis (some resources included the Stuff You Should Know podcast and discussion of Ebola songs).

Continue reading

The Social Security Game

Today we have a guest post from Tyler Chance, a doctoral student and instructor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be reached at  trc6df [at] mail [dot] umsl [dot] edu.

social-security-cardsSocial Security and its financial problems is one important policy issue that is probably not on the minds of most U.S. college students. The Social Security Game ( ), created by the American Academy of Actuaries, is a fun activity that I use to teach my students about policy choices. The game’s goal is simple: fix Social Security so that Americans can receive retiree benefits after the year 2034. You can choose to reduce benefits, increase revenues, or apply a combination of both.  The game provides quick videos that explain the different viewpoints behind each policy alternative. After each decision you make the game uses estimates from the Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary to calculate how close you are to fixing the problem.

I like to use the game in my Introduction to American Government course, as well as in my Congressional Politics course, but it has wider applications. When I teach Introduction to American Government, the game demonstrates why paying attention to this policy issue is important and how it can be messy and hard to fix. I first have the class vote on whether we should reduce benefits or increase revenues. From there we vote on subcategories; for instance, if we voted to reduce benefits, we would then need to choose from a range of options provided by the game, such as increasing the full retirement age, reducing Cost-of-Living-Adjustments, and lowering benefits for future high-income retirees. A class in which students have diverse political ideologies quickly illustrates just how complicated the Social Security reform can become.

When I teach Congressional Politics, the game functions as a mock legislature. In this project, I play the role of a newly-elected president acting on a mandate to reform Social Security. I assign each student a specific legislator and have them research their stance on the issue and the demographics of their constituency (or you can provide students with that information on index cards).  I then encourage the students to work through the game with their constituencies in my mind.  So far, solving the problem of Social Security has been close to impossible for my classes, which allows me to show institutionalized gridlock and constituent-based constraints in practice.

The game can also be effective as an individual homework assignment. Have the students play the game and share experiences. Were they able to solve the problem? What route did they take—benefit reductions, increased revenues, or a mix of the two? Why did they choose a particular strategy?

A final Brexit sim reflection

In our last post on this, Matthew LeRiche (Memorial) talks about his takeaways from our Brexit game held before Christmas.


With the semester now over and course commentary and review in progress it is clear that the Brexit simulation lead by Simon Usherwood in conjunction with Chris Huggins was one of the highlights for my undergraduate students. This past semester the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN for short) was able to run its Public Policy Certificate program based at our UK based Harlow Campus – a gift from Lord Taylor many moons ago and a great platform to link our North American students to Europe and the world.

Although tardy in my contribution to the de-brief from the exercise, the following is a reflection on the exercise from my perspective and that of my students. The multi-layered nature of this simulation afforded great opportunity for learning. In particular, it afforded different learning to take place for the different groups involved, since the various groups of students involved from different institutions were undertaking quite different courses. For the MUN group, the key challenge and thus most important learning opportunity was the need to reconcile internally and manage the process of balancing several internal interests to then engage in a single front in a negotiation. For a group of public policy students this afforded an opportunity to think more deeply about the public policy process. Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading

The Brand New Subway Game

nyc-subway-mapFor anyone teaching geography, urban planning, or public policy, the Brand New Subway game is a fun digital tool. Created for a competition in honor of the book “The Power Broker,” it allows players to design New York City’s subway system. Players can create an entirely new system from scratch, or modify past, present, and future systems. The game also includes an option for creating subways from scratch for other U.S. cities.

Players get three kinds of continuous feedback on their designs:  the price of a single fare, the average weekly ridership, and the overall rating of the system. The overall goal is to design a system that attracts the largest number of riders and efficiently gets them to where they want to go at the lowest price. The trade-offs between ridership, operating cost, and system quality make the problem very difficult to solve.

The game’s user interface is fairly easy to figure out and players can save works in progress. A simple way to use this game: have student teams compete against each other to build the best subway. Include as part of the competition a presentation where each team defends its design against questions from other teams.

Making teaching transferable

Yesterday was my last teaching day of the semester. However, I found myself 40 miles away from my classroom at the relevant time, at a research event I’d organised in London. The availability of the speakers meant we’d had to go then, but my institution’s (not-unreasonable) insistence that no classes be cancelled meant that I had had to make use of our departmental buddy system.

In essence, this is just a rota of people who can cover for each other, in cases of illness or other commitments. We developed it a few years back after we had a spate of ill-health and the ad-hoc arrangements were getting a bit ropey. We don’t use it much, but it does cut-through a lot of the hassle of finding cover when we need it.

Any way, the main point of telling you this is that I had to get together materials for my colleague for class. That meant a dossier to hand out to students for a simulation (this one, since you ask).

However, I also had to sit down with him last week, just to run through the game and talk about what to expect and to discuss in feedback. In particular, we covered what happened if not everyone showed up. This mattered, because a) the students had deadlines yesterday too and we know that’s a killer for attendance, b) this game needs a certain minimum number of people, and c) we’d completed our big game last week, so some students might have felt that there was little to gain by attending.

In the event, it was good we had that chat, because only 2/3rds of the students rocked up, so my colleague had to put into action his fall-back adaptation.

Talking with him later, his feedback was positive and students seem to have got something out of it, but it has reminded me of the difficulty of creating resources that can be picked up and used by others.

This should have been relatively simple: my colleague’s observed my class before, the game was on a subject area he can talk about, he knows the students. But even then we covered a bunch of stuff in the prep that I haven’t included in the materials, even though the materials are ones that I developed explicitly to be shared.

This is something we’ve tussled with here at ALPS over the years, because it’s both a specific simulation game problem and a generic L&T one. It’s really only when you try something out that you fully appreciate the dimensions and the potential any teaching environment contains.

Indeed, I’d go further and say it’s only when someone else uses your stuff that you appreciate these things, because they’ll do something different. My colleague adapted what I gave him in interesting and creative ways and debriefing on some different aspects to me.

To be clear, that’s great because it means I’ve learnt something from it too, along with him and the students. In our post-class chat, we talked about how you could grow this game in various directions that I’d not really considered before (mainly because of the maths involved).

So two thoughts to consider as the festive break looms.

One is that there is great benefit in sharing our teaching practice, both for ourselves and for others.

The other is that it is hard to communicate what we want our teaching to achieve (and how) to other teachers, so we should take time to reflect on what others need to know. That’s a bigger project than we realise and one I’ll come back to in the new year.