Poverty Games, Part 7: Against All Odds

Against All Odds is an online game hosted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that lets players experience what life is like for a political refugee. The game has twelve parts, divided into three sections: War and Conflict, where you play through levels that require you to give up all your beliefs and identity markers in a military police interrogation (or you are thrown in jail indefinitely), choosing which of your many possessions to take with you when you leave (including choosing whether or not to take your dog), and navigating out of the country without being seen; Border Country, which focuses on trying to get asylum and figuring out who to trust; and A New Life, where you have to get a job and go shopping in a climate of suspicion and in some cases, hostility.

There are some great things about this game. Each level only takes a few minutes to play; the entire game can be finished in 30 minutes. The level one initial interrogation is interesting, because you cannot proceed in the game without agreeing to some pretty harsh statements, such as ‘I give up my faith’ or expressing a willingness to give up your language. Students will probably struggle with agreeing to these statements, which can lead to interesting conversations about life in an oppressive environment. Several of the mini-games are fun to play, such as the one where you have to navigate out of town without being seen. You can access any of the twelve levels at any time, which makes it easier to focus on a particular lesson with the students, and each level can be replayed as many times as necessary without penalty. UNHCR also provides a series of web facts, with stories of people who lived through the levels in the game, as well as teaching resources related to the game, although much like the game itself the target audience is younger than college.

There are some downsides. First, some of the levels are a bit too high-handed, such as the ones in the A New Life segment where you have to go from apartment to apartment and learn about your neighbors’ prejudices. Its also frustrating that a single incorrect answer prevents you from directly moving onward in the game (you can always go back to the start screen and choose a later level, but its an inconvenient extra step). For example, one mini-game involves correctly identifying the origin of various inventions like the bicycle, chocolate, gum ball machines, and insulin. A single incorrect answer prevents you from moving on. In one way this is an asset, as replaying it helps you learn, but it’s still cumbersome. Also, the game ends rather abruptly and anti-climatically.

Overall, though, Against all Odds is a pretty neat way to teach students about the plight of refugees, focusing not only on the original oppression that drives refugees out of their home country, but also on the difficulties they face in seeking asylum and building a new life. I would recommend assigning it either as homework the night before a lesson on refugees, or with a small class and access to a computer lab, having them play through a level or two as a class exercise, followed by discussion.  This would also work very, very well in an online, hybrid or blended learning environment.

Previous Posts in this 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!


Putin and ObamaThere was some discussion at this year’s TLC spent about the pros and cons of different off-the-shelf simulations, including Statecraft. Here is a synopsis of the comments about it, with the usual disclaimers: this review reflects a non-representative sample and I have no financial connections with Statecraft‘s parent company. Previous posts about Statecraft are here, herehere, and here.

Instructors who had used Statecraft liked the way in which its participants experience the complexities of international relations. Students build nation-states from ground up, which illustrates the interconnection of institutions and interests. The entire process is mediated through simulation’s website so instructor does not have to manage play. However, negative outcomes can overwhelm students’ achievements and make them frustrated (which isn’t necessarily a result too far removed from reality). More problematic is the user interface, which doesn’t allow the instructor to see the real-time status of all the teams on a single webpage. Because the instructor has does not have a full picture of what’s happening in the simulation, even if one is wanted, instructors must refer students to the dense Statecraft instruction manual or online customer support in the event of technical questions.

Statecraft favors students who are familiar with gaming, but the gamers find it badly designed while those who are not gamers can get overwhelmed trying to learn the simulation’s rules. If a few students treat Statecraft as a typical game in which they can rampage through a fictional world and disregard the repercussions of their actions, it can ruin the experience for the entire class. Students also often find the newsfeed to be distracting or irrelevant to game-play. Some students simply don’t engage with the simulation or their classmates, something that is always a possibility with team-based exercises.

Statecraft requires a major time commitment whether it is run during class or outside of it. Instructors have to decide whether the costs of Statecraft make it too expensive given the pedagogical outcomes.

Mission U.S.: Teaching History through Games

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the first annual CUNY Games Festival in New York.  The conference brought together academics and game designers to discuss means and methods of using games in higher education.  For me it was certainly a ‘these are my people!’ gathering and while I enjoyed presenting my own work (on my interdisciplinary World of Warcraft course), the highlight was learning about a variety of games that are available and useful for the college classroom.  Ill be posting about many of them in the coming weeks.

The first is Mission U.S, a series of free online games aimed at teaching American history to 5th-8th graders.    Designed by historians, each of the three games casts you as a fictional character at a crucial time in history–as a printmaking apprentice on the eve of the American Revolution in Boston; as a young slave in 1848, or as a Northern Cheyenne boy in 1866. They are all essentially single-player role playing games.  The major events are set (you cannot, for example, prevent the Boston Massacre) but you are free to take sides and actions as you choose.  For example, in the first Mission, you can choose your words or actions to support the Sons of Liberty, or to remain loyal to the British.

The games are most appropriate for history courses, but could also certainly be used as an out-of-class assignment to inform introductory or niche courses in American Politics.  For example, I always start my introduction to American Politics course with the historical background preceding the Revolution and the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The first mission could either substitute or complement that lecture, and really set the stage for students to understand the complaints of the colonists and how their experiences informed the writing of those documents.

I also quite enjoyed the gameplay.  Despite the pitch at a younger audience, the games would work quite well for the college crowd.  The interface is easy to use; the gameplay fairly simple but filled with interesting choices that impact the game (the path you choose does matter in terms of options available to you later); and the graphics pleasing.  The games are divided into chapters, which makes it easy to assign concrete chunks to students, and you are free to save the game at any time.  The creators also made educational guides for instructors available, which include lesson plans, learning goals, how-to guides, and cheat sheets.

Again, this is a niche game, and political science professors may find more value in playing it for their own interest and refresher than as an assignment to students.  It may be something to pass on to your colleagues in history–but it also may prove useful in various American Government courses.

Scales of Injustice

ScalabilitySimon Fink discussed the scalability of an EU simulation in terms of its duration. I’m running into a scale problem in terms the number of participants. For the second year in a row, I’m using Statecraft in an introductory international relations course. Last year I had thirty-four students; this year I have only thirteen. The buzz of activity in this year’s classroom is noticeably less than it was last year; however, last year it was obvious that, with teams of five or six students, often one or two students weren’t very engaged in the proceedings. I have seen this passivity happen in other simulations as well.

This suggests that, absent highly-structured roles for individual team members and a clear system of individually-based rewards and penalties, many simulations probably have a sweet spot for group size — perhaps three students per team. If one student is absent, then there are still two others present to collaborate. If all three are present, the group is still small enough for everyone to want to participate and for no one to be able to hide.

Unfortunately I find it extremely inconvenient to wait until I have a firm idea of class size before deciding whether to use a particular simulation. I also don’t want to build a syllabus around a few simulations and then have to discard them when enrollment goes up or down. This makes a simulation’s scalability in terms of number of participants very important to me.

Poverty Games, Part 6: Papers, Please

Papers, Please explores the challenges of immigration from the perspective of a low-income border checkpoint officer in the fictional country of Arztotska.  The player must make decisions about who to let into the country, examining their documents, trying to weed out potential terrorists, and confronting moral dilemmas on whether or not to help those that may lack the proper paperwork but desperately need assistance.  Each day new requirements are set on who can and cannot enter (one day a passport is enough, the next entrants need ID cards and work visas) based on various story elements, and there are multiple endings possible that result from the decisions made by the player.  Meanwhile, you also must consider accuracy and speed: your salary is based on how many people you correctly process, and failure to earn enough will result in being unable to make rent, heat your home, or provide medicine for sick relatives.  In my first time through the game, all of my family members died because I was too slow in processing entrants.  Thus there are numerous competing moral dilemmas: if I incorrectly process someone on purpose, I will help them, but my family will suffer; too many mistakes, and I will earn enough citations to be fired.

As one example: a woman came into the booth and all of her paperwork was in order–she was entering the country to work.  But as she left she handed me a note which indicated that a man behind her in line had tricked her and was forcing her and her sister into prostitution.  She begged me to keep the man from entering the country, even though his paperwork was in order as well.  Keeping him out would earn me a citation and I would not get paid for his processing, so I chose to let him in.  The news report the following day indicated that she died at the brothel. Human trafficking is therefore part of the story as well.

Papers, Please is a neat game, therefore, that will expose students to some of the challenges operating a border and some of the ways in which international relations (between Arztotska and its neighbors) trickle down to everyday life.  There is also the fascinating set of moral quandrays that you face and can raise questions about justice and the law.  It would work really well as a homework assignment prior to a class session on issues of immigration in general, human trafficking, terrorism, asylum, and authoritarianism.

The gameplay has a bit of an upfront learning curve, but then evens out.  I would recommend having students play through a couple of days just to get used to the procedures, and then load a new game to play for real.  The beta version of the game, which lets you play through about 8 days of the 30 available in the full version, is free here.  There is a full version for PC and Mac available for $10 if you want to have students play through everything.

Earlier entries in the Poverty Games Reviews series:

Part 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Part 2: 3rd World Farmer

Part 3: Free Rice

Part 4: Spent

Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

The Redistricting Game

This one is so well known that I was surprised when I realized that we had yet to feature it.  The Redistricting Game (at redistrictinggame.org) is a great online tool for learning about districts, redistricting, and gerrymandering.  Players work on behalf of one of the political parties and are tasked with redrawing district lines on several different missions, from simply making population size equal and districts compact and contiguous to partisan gerrymandering or ensuring minority representation.  The gameplay is a map with small dots representing the people according to their party affiliation and ethnicity, and cities are noted with little house icons and high population density (i.e., lots of dots). As you redraw the lines, elected officials give you feedback through their animated expressions as well as written comments–happy if their reelection is ensured, concerned if the divide is a toss up between parties, and outraged if their district will flip to the other party.  Once you meet the mission’s objectives, you submit the plan for a vote and eventually the Governor’s signature.

Its a great game to assign students either before or after learning about redistricting.  It takes what can be a bit dry of a lesson–the rules and regulations of district sizes and shapes–and makes it concrete and active.  Its also quite user-friendly and is entirely free.  As a supplement to traditional class readings and lectures, it works really well in teaching the basics of the subject and you may find that students will play it for far longer than assigned.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.


You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.