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?

Prisoners of War Game

Built upon the principles in the Third Geneva Convection, the Red Cross Prisoners of War online game is a quick and interactive way to introduce international humanitarian law. The Emblem_of_the_IFRCgame walks players through building a prisoners of war camp, deciding whom to treat as a POW, and running the camp.

I’ve typically had students play the game before a class on international humanitarian law.  I find that students are often unclear about the concept of prisoners of war. The word “prisoner” tends to throw them off, so they are surprised at the protections afforded prisoners of war compared to prisoners in a criminal sense. This game provides a useful starting point for that discussion.

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.





ICONS Crisis in North Korea

Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:

Kim FatheadSubjects: IR in East Asia, IR theory, international security, diplomacy and negotiation

Learning outcomes for students

I used this simulation in my course on the comparative political history of Asia. The simulation represented an opportunity for students to:

  • Gain a better understanding of international relations in Asia.
  • Analyze multiple approaches to solving contemporary global problems.

Applicable readings

Crisis in North Korea is relevant to a number of texts on East Asian politics. Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, by Alexis Dudden, a book I’ve used previously, would situate the simulation within a wider historical and diplomatic context. IR survey texts, such as the chapters on theory and conflict in Essentials of International Relations by Mingst and Arreguín-Toft,.also apply.

Logistical considerations

As I mentioned in a previous post about low-enrollment classes, I ran this simulation with only eleven students. The six teams — USA, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea — should have at least three members each, so the ideal class size for the simulation is probably eighteen to twenty-four students. The simulation can probably be successfully run in larger classes, especially if the instructor prepares specific roles within teams for each student to play; for example, defense minister, foreign minister, etc. However, each state functions as a unitary actor in the simulation, so the larger the teams get, the greater the potential for some students to become disengaged, passive observers.

ICONS recommends scheduling at least 150 minutes for the simulation, divided into two 75-minute sessions, which is the time frame I used.  My students said they felt rushed in the second session; I suspect that trying to compress the simulation into an even smaller block of time risks disaster. Extending the simulation across three 75-minute sessions probably works better; at minimum this allows plenty of time for debriefing.

ICONS costs money. Either the instructor can pay a lump sum to enroll his or her class or students can pay individually. I chose the latter option because I don’t receive institutional support for these in-class experiences and I did not want to bother with collecting money from students. The per-student price was an extremely reasonable $13.

Materials needed

ICONS is housed entirely online, so each team of students needs at least one device with an internet connection. A laptop or computer per student is possibly more effective. The instructor also needs access to the internet on a separate machine during the simulation.

Instructor preparation

The concise facilitator guide provided to instructors clearly explains how to manage the simulation. The ICONS website is intuitive and easy to navigate. I spent a small amount of time on setting up teams and other administrative tasks. In general, this simulation requires minimal instructor preparation.

Student preparation

Students need to create accounts and pay for the simulation to gain access the ICONS website. They also need to read background information and the role sheet for the country to which they’ve been assigned. All of these documents are only a few pages long, clearly written, and available on the website. Students found the website easy to navigate.

I created an auto-graded quiz on my course website, worth one percent of the final grade, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with the simulation before it began. I also used the ICONS Pre-Negotiation Planning Report, a one-page questionnaire, as an ungraded pre-simulation in-class exercise so students could individually identify goals to achieve and then develop a shared strategy with their teammates. This exercise appeared to be very useful; students wrote detailed answers to the questions on the form.

Game play:

The simulation begins with an explosion at a nuclear facility in North Korea. The instructor periodically unveils new developments to intensify the crisis. Teams respond to what is happening either through diplomatic overtures — requests to send humanitarian aid missions, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the like — or military attacks. Peaceful actions typically require the cooperation of other states. Most military attacks require the prior approval of the instructor. If a state executes an action, the simulation generates a message describing the outcome, such as “North Korea has accepted the offer of inspectors from Japan.” The instructor determines how the simulation ends: either the effects of the nuclear accident are successfully contained or radioactive contamination spreads across international borders.

Instructor tips

Managing the simulation — reading and responding to messages, approving or disapproving teams’ actions, injecting the pre-loaded events into the crisis — requires all of the instructor’s time and attention. I was glued to my computer screen, constantly flipping between the separate feeds for messages and actions.

Sample assignments

My standard post-simulation assignment is an essay that asks students to write about which IR theory they think best explains what they experienced in the simulation, but this wasn’t an IR course, so I created this instead:

You are employed as a policy analyst at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Your task is to write an analysis of the recent crisis in North Korea. The analysis should:

1. Assess the response of the U.S. government to the recent crisis in North Korea in terms of its likely long-term effects on U.S. relations with other states in the region. 

2. Recommend whether and how the U.S. should try to improve its relations with other states in the region given the outcome of the crisis. 

Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than three pages. Make sure to support your analysis with examples from the simulation and information from ICONS resources. Documents should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Country Information, China)”. You are also welcome to use information from readings in the syllabus if they are relevant. There is no need to do additional research.

Extensions and portability options

While actors’ capabilities are fixed throughout the simulation, it is possible to supply information to teams that will likely alter their perceptions of other actors, which adds more of a constructivist element to game play.

Good penmanship optional during debriefing
Good penmanship optional during debriefing


At the fifteen minute mark, Japan launched an airstrike against China, an action that did not require my approval. From that point forward, teams repeatedly tried to attack each other, often with nuclear weapons. I disallowed the attacks until the U.S. team ordered a nuclear strike against South Korea  — I wanted to demonstrate the effects of not proofreading. The simulation then degenerated into a nuclear holocaust for East Asia. In sum, the game play exhibited by students was unrealistic, and I don’t think they learned much from the experience about international relations in the region.

In the debriefing students noted that outcomes did not enhance or degrade the capabilities of actors, which created the impression of a static environment where actions could be taken without consequences. They thought that the simulation would better reflect the real world if actors obtained tangible benefits each time they achieved intermediate goals. They also expressed a desire for a more extensive menu of options in responding to the actions of other teams.

I noticed the logical disconnect of using a web-based simulation in a physical classroom. ICONS enables people in different geographic locations to participate in the same simulation, but in my opinion the need for and benefits of a computer-mediated environment decrease significantly when face-to-face interaction is an option. 

Poverty Games, Part 8: Syrian Journey

There is a new game available today through the BBC (and thanks to Kathie Barrett for the tip!): Syrian Journey: Choose your own Escape Route. This is a typical choose-your-own-adventure style online text game, where you read a situation and make a choice between two or three possible options, see the results, and choose again. In the simulation, you and your family are forced to leave Damascus during the current conflict and are seeing asylum in Europe. The choices you make determine whether you are captured by the authorities, get separated from your family, or get everyone to your intended destination.

Was anyone else obsessed with these in the 1980s, or was that just me?

The game is based on stories of real refugees from Syria, and therefore works as a quick and easy way to get students thinking about what faces refugees in these conflicts. It pairs nicely with Against All Odds, as there are more decisions about who to trust and how much risk to take, and many of the pathways end in complete defeat. In AAO, passing a level means success, so failure feels more like a function of poor player performance; in Syrian Journey, it is your choices that lead to failure, and failure often means death or separation from your family. This creates a real opportunity for reflection. For example, at one point you must decide whether to leave your hiding spot in to get supplies. If you do, there is a chance you will be seen and turned in to the authorities. If you don’t, nothing happens right away…but later on, a crowded boat to Italy capsizes, and if you failed to get supplies, you and your family drown. In another example, you have the option of saving a mother and child struggling in the water, but doing so could cost you your chance of escape from the authorities.

Syrian Journey takes only a few minutes to play through a single storyline of 6 or 7 steps, and ten or fifteen minutes to try all the different options. It is a quick way to introduce students to some of the human costs of the conflict in Syria, or as part of a lesson on refugees and human rights. It could work either as a homework assignment, or as a class activity, with students voting on which option to take.

Previous Entries in the Poverty Games Series:
Part 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Part 2: 3rd World Farmer

Part 3: Free Rice

Part 4: Spent

Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

Part 6: Papers, Please

Part 7: Against All Odds