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

Teaching Trump 3

Today we have a third installment in a spontaneous series on teaching political science in the time of Trump, written by William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. Previous posts in this series are here and here.

I too have struggled. My focus so far has been to spend more class time on two things: 1) the founding and how it informs what is happening in American politics today, and 2) on what political science, and social science generally, can tell my students about the rise of President Trump. I agree that neutrality is important. I need to be able to potentially reach all my students, regardless of their position on issues or their party affiliation. Three syllabi that helped guide my teaching this semester:

I also found the following blog posts, mostly by political scientists, particularly useful in putting together readings for students on various topics: 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?

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia:

Active Teaching & Learning in Bogotá, Colombia


Today we have a guest post by Kent Kille, Matthew Krain, and Jeffrey Lantis from The College of Wooster, Ohio, USA.

framework-skyWe recently led a three-day workshop on active teaching and learning in international studies, sponsored by the Centro de Estudios Políticos e Internacionales, at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia. The workshop was based on a best practices framework that we devised for teaching with purpose, called EEPA:

  • identifying clear Educational objectives;
  • exploration of a wide range of possible Exercises, with the goal of choosing ones that best meet the instructor’s objectives;
  • developing clear and explicit Procedures for implementation to help guide the students and the instructor;
  • incorporating critical Assessment, debriefing, or other forms of structured reflection to achieve learning outcomes more effectively.

Workshop sessions included simulations, case teaching, structured debates, teaching with visual media (such as film) and alternative texts, and included discussions about the effective use of technology and experiential learning opportunities. Participants had the opportunity to engage in and experience different applications, and we focused on detailing effective methods for debriefing and assessment. The workshop ended with sessions focused on syllabus development and on publishing materials and exercises in the scholarship on active teaching and learning.

We found like-minded and conscientious teacher scholars in Bogotá who were already using some of these approaches and eager to think more systematically about how to make their classrooms even more student-centered. For example, faculty from the business school engaged us in conversations about how to adapt and use Apple’s “Challenge-Based Learning” curriculum at the college level by incorporating problem-, service-, and community-based learning. Faculty members teaching about entrepreneurship shared ideas about exercises that helped students learn to better interact with and serve community-based clients, and discussed how to assess them. We worked with an economics professor to develop procedures and assessment for data literacy and visualization exercises, and with political science professors on simulation design. And we enjoyed wide-ranging discussions about the utility of Colombian-authored, Colombian-focused case studies, exercises, and texts.

Evaluations of the workshop were overwhelmingly positive. Participants reported that they were thinking about how to implement or modify pedagogical strategies in line with the ideas discussed during in the workshop. All seemed grateful for the opportunity to begin to develop a local community of teacher-scholars in Bogotá. Expect to see professors from universities in Colombia begin to connect to professional opportunities for, and publish about, active teaching and learning in the very near future!

Democracy vs. Autocracy: The Resource Distribution Game

SalehyanToday we have a guest post from Idean Salehyan, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He can be reached at idean (at) utdallas (dot) edu.

When teaching about democratic and autocratic regimes, I like to emphasize two basic points.  First, democratic governments are held accountable by (typically) a majority of citizens, while autocrats must focus on a narrower constituency.  Second, unpopular democratic governments can be removed by the vote, while removing autocrats often involves violence. This classroom simulation is intended to demonstrate these differences.

Materials needed:  A deck of playing cards and a “resource” to be distributed.  Candy works well, but tokens may also be used.  A total of 200 units are needed.

The simulation works best with a class of 30-50 students, although it may be modified to suit your needs.  I run the simulation twice (once under each set of rules), but with two decks of cards you could split a larger class in two. It takes about 30-40 minutes to complete the simulation and a debriefing.

Dictatorship version

Assigning roles: Distribute playing cards to the students, making sure to deal all of the face cards (kings, queens, and jacks).  Tell the students that the king, queen, and jack of spades are the rulers (the top decision-makers); all other royal cards are the elites (nine in total; this could represent the military, a ruling party, or a royal family). All numbered cards, including aces, are the citizens.

Game play:

  1. Have the three rulers divide up 100 units of a “resource” (e.g. candy) between the three groups: rulers, elites, and citizens. They only choose across these broad categories; within each category, resources are distributed as equally as possible.  For this step they may leave the classroom to confer with each other.
  2. Once the distribution of resources is announced, the elites can decide to accept or reject the offer by majority vote. If they reject, the rulers are deposed in a coup; the rulers all die and get nothing.  Those who voted to reject the offer can decide a new distribution of resources between elites and citizens.  However, since a coup disrupts the economy, 25 of the resources have been destroyed leaving 75 to divvy up.
  3. The citizens can accept the distribution, or reject it by revolting. Since the rulers and elites control the guns, citizens need a supermajority (2/3 or 3/4) to revolt.  If they revolt, the rulers and elites all die, and one suit among the citizens picked at random will die.  Moreover, since war destroys the economy, all survivors receive only 1 unit of the resource.

Democracy version

Assigning roles: Distribute playing cards to the students, making sure to deal all of the face cards.  Tell the students that the king, queen, and jack of spades are the executives (this represents the top decision-makers); all other royal cards are the legislature (9 in total); all numbered cards, including aces, are the citizens.

Game play:

  1. Have the three executives divide up 100 units of a “resource” between the three groups: executives, legislature, and citizens. They only choose across these broad categories; within each category, resources are distributed as equally as possible.  For this step they may leave the classroom to confer with each other.
  2. Once the distribution of resources is announced, the legislature can decide to accept or reject the offer by majority vote. If they reject, the executives are deposed (impeachment, vote of no confidence) and receive nothing.  Those who voted to reject the offer can decide a new distribution of resources between the legislature and citizens.  As this is a constitutional procedure, no resources are lost.
  3. The citizens can accept the distribution, or reject it through a majority vote. If they reject the distribution, the executive and legislature are deposed, receiving zero resources; each citizen receives 2 resources.


Ask the rulers or executives how they came up with their initial “offer” and who they felt accountable to. (When I ran this game the first time, the rulers in the authoritarian scenario decided to be “fair” and distribute the resources evenly, but this caused them to suffer a coup.  That lead to a nice discussion about incentives to be “good” or not.)

Ask the legislature in the democratic scenario why they voted the way they did; do the same of the citizens.  What offer would have kept them happy? What offer would have caused a “no” vote?

Discussion questions:

  • To whom are leaders accountable in democratic and autocratic settings?
  • What are the advantages of voting versus violence to remove leaders?
  • Which set of rules led to more “just” outcomes?