Where Do Flash Games Go to Die?

Related to my recent post on replacing traditional textbooks with digital content:

For the last two years, I have used the Stop Disasters! game in my course on humanitarian emergencies, which is online. A significant number of the students are outside the USA when they take it. Stop Disasters! runs on Flash. Flash is an application that has been incompatible with Apple devices for years and its owner, Adobe, will cease supporting it entirely in 2020. Web browsers now require installation of special plugins and whatnot to run it. This means that my students may not be able to play this game without jumping through a bunch of technological hoops, a burden that I can’t justify imposing on them.

Unfortunately a lot of online pedagogical games and simulations are Flash-based; a few that have been discussed on this blog include Ayiti: The Game of Life3rd World Farmer, and Inside Disaster. Clicking on the link for the simulation at the Inside Disaster website produces a black screen, so it is no longer accessible whether one has Flash running or not.

These online tools have an irritating tendency to have short lifespans, which to me greatly lessons their convenience. Board games don’t end up in the technological dustbin of history at anywhere near the same speed. Maybe it’s time to switch back to exercises based on tangible objects rather than software applications. But how does one do that in the online environment?

 

Two Online Games From The New York Times

Last month The New York Times published an updated version of its confirmation bias game that might be useful for teaching research methods or political psychology. The newer version includes an explanation of how confirmation bias affects government policy.
Also of note is another game on President Trump’s plan for changing U.S. immigration criteria. I failed to qualify under these new proposed rules. Probably all of my students will fail also.

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 (http://socialsecuritygame.actuary.org/#make-your-choice-now ), 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.