Online Educational Games: Natural Disaster Preparation with ‘Stop Disasters’

I came across a neat online resource that compiles a bunch of online games available for educators (Chang et al, 2009).  Naturally I immediately started playing some of them, and I’ll share my findings here.

The first game is called ‘Stop Disasters’, available at www.stopdisastersgame.org.  Its a simulation of different disasters, including hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.  You act as the city planner for a particular area, and with a set budget have to decide how to prepare for a potential disaster while balancing other community needs (such as tourism or agriculture).  As you make decisions, helpful info boxes pop up to let you know how different measures make a difference. After twenty minutes, disaster strikes and you get a report on how well you met the objectives of the scenario, how many lives were lost, and whether or not you are fired from your position.  You also get a score that can be compared with other players.

The game is pretty fun.  I played through the tsunami scenario and completely messed up the first time.  I spent all my money on a seismic early warning sensor and other defenses, and not enough upgrading buildings with foundations and stilts or providing education on tsunami signs or clear evacuation procedures.  Building on high ground helps a lot, too.  The second time around was naturally easier, although 29 people still died, and I’m determined to play until everyone is saved.  Other pros of the game are that it is very easy to learn with a clean interface, it only takes 20 minutes (less if you complete your defenses early and want the disaster to happen sooner), and its available in several languages (Spanish, French, German, and Madarin (i think) in addition to English).

The downside is the problem that you know that in 20 minutes or so, disaster will strike.  Thus you have a strong incentive to build defenses.  Objectives such as ‘protecting livelihoods’ really mean ensuring that such buildings and businesses survive the disaster, rather than giving you a real choice in how you spend your money.  The game would be more useful if players had to balance keeping the economy going with disaster preparation, without a 100% chance of the disaster occurring.

Still, the game is fun and a useful way to start a discussion about why, if we know exactly what needs to be done to minimize losses during a disaster, these measures are not always taken.  Then the 100% chance of disaster becomes a starting point for the conversation, rather than defeating the point of the exercise.

This game could be used as a homework assignment in anticipation of a class on government responses to disasters, but it could also be used in-class.  The easy way would be to take the students to an electronic classroom, but it could be done in a room with internet and projector.  Simply choose your scenario ahead of time and write out their budget and the costs of all the different options on a handout.  Put the game up on the projector, put them into small groups, and give them 15 minutes to make their decisions.  Then insert the choices into the map, push the ‘start disaster’ button, and see what happens.  You can do this pretty quickly with each group and see whose plan worked best, and then discuss why.

I’ll Have the Merlot Please

A brief mention of the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT), which I stumbled upon while in a training workshop for teaching blended/hybrid courses:

MERLOT is an immense searchable directory of learning materials that are available online for free. These materials are suitable for both online and face-to-face teaching environments.

I was particularly interested in political science simulations on MERLOT, and among them I found Ayiti: The Cost of Life.

Ayiti is a simple but fiendishly challenging simulation of poverty in Haiti, created through a partnership between Gamelab and Global Kids, with support from UNICEF and Microsoft. It’s a great demonstration of the effects of productivity shocks in conditions of poverty. The setting is a poor Haitian family that is struggling to survive; the player must decide how to allocate the family’s limited resources, manage risk, and pursue goals. I’ll admit that so far I haven’t been able to crack the simulation’s algorithm — every time I’ve played, the game ends with family members dead of cholera and any surviving children sent off to live with relatives.

Statecraft: A Simulation for International Relations

I’ve been meaning to write about Statecraft for some time. I was an alpha tester for the simulation last year and thus am very familiar with the team at Digital World Construction, the sim, and the development process.

Statecraft is “an immersive simulation that allows students to experience the challenges, opportunities, and complexities of international relations in a very vivid, intense, and personal way.”  Its based on a long standing pen-and-paper sim run by Dr. Jonathan Keller of James Madison University.

If you haven’t heard about it, check out the link above.  Basically students will play as teams representing fictional countries on a set map.  They have to manage their resources and wealth as well as various political factions in their countries, international organizations, military and diplomatic incursions from other countries, and natural disasters.  Its great fun for the students, and active learning at its best.  There’s a grading system incorporated into the sim, so the burden on the instructor is minimal (beyond, of course, providing the context via the concepts and theories of IR).  There is a fee of $25/student/course for the game, but if you consider the game as a ‘text’, that’s actually quite cheap compared to mainstream textbooks and readers. The sim can be used for classes as small as 7 or as large as needed.

If you’ve been thinking about using a sim in your class and don’t know how to go about creating one of your own, this would be a great choice.  My students loved it when they played, and that was before the onslaught of new changes which have really streamlined the gameplay and made the entire game more user-friendly.  If you are teaching intro IR in the spring, consider adding this to your syllabus.

Do I have a Right? A game on Civil Liberties

This is a neat little game from I Civics where you control a law firm that specializes in civil liberties and rights.  Your job is to assemble a team of lawyers with different specialties and then arbitrate between potential clients, turning away those with frivolous cases and directing others to the appropriate lawyer.  Winning cases earns you prestige, which you can use to hire new lawyers and diversify the range of specialties you cover, or to upgrade the equipment in your firm.  Turning away clients with legitimate grievances, accepting frivolous cases, or mismatching clients to lawyers loses prestige points. Feedback is both immediate and written up as amusing newspaper articles at the end of each workday.

The game is easy to learn and the gameplay itself is simple; a game goes through seven workdays and takes about 20 minutes.  Like all the games on I Civics, it is also free, and if you have students register they can save the game midway through and track their performance.  The game would work in either a general American Politics course or one themed around civil liberties and rights.  The nature of the game makes it better for active assessment than active learning, though—it’s a great way for students to test themselves on their Amendments, but not particularly suited as an introduction to the material.  It is also not practical for a group project or an in-class exercise.  But I think it could work really well as a practice exercise for students, a review for an exam, or even a quiz (using the standings and achievements to monitor performance).

20 Minute Interest Groups

Interest Groups and the Bureaucracy are in a constant battle for my least favorite material to teach in my intro US course.  They are just not as sexy as elections and the media or even the judiciary, and every time I get to this part of the course, I want to throw everything out the window and rebuild the course from the ground up just for the chance to add some excitement.

For now, however, I try to alleviate this particular instinct with simulations.  Here’s one on interest groups that I’ve found effective for starting off the class and getting students to understand the role and strategies of interest groups without having to lecture.

This sim comes to us courtesy of WW Norton, who do not require use of their textbook to use the resources on their site.  The Interactive Politics Simulation: Interest Groups puts students in the role of either an environmental group or a drug company and gives them a budget of $200k to spend on various strategies for influencing an evenly matched legislature to vote in your favor.  You can hire a lobbyist, donate to committee chairs, party leadership, or friends or enemies of your cause; alternatives include preparing a supreme court brief, recruiting members, or having a press conference.  Some strategies work in either case–hiring a lobbyist is always a good idea–while others work only for one group or the other, such as a press conference, which only helps the environmental group.

I usually do this at the start of the lesson, but have with success used it in the middle or end of the lesson, depending on when it makes sense to talk about interest group tactics. I let the class pick a role as a group, and then divide them into small groups to discuss how they would spend the money (5 minutes).  Proposals are put on the board and discussion ensues as to the merits of different strategies (5 minutes).  Once we decide on an overall class strategy, I enter in their choices and we discuss how they did (5 minutes).  Then we debrief, and they take notes on the different strategies interest groups use to affect policy (5 minutes). Mission accomplished, sans lecture!

The students seem to like it.  The last time I used this, one student passionately argued against  a press conference for the drug company, but was outvoted by students who thought that spending the most money possible was a good idea. His exultation when they lost votes was fun to watch, and it led to a neat discussion about quality v. quantity.

Are there other ideas out there for making bureaucracy and/or interest groups more exciting?

Interesting online exercise on poverty and budgeting

I have used online simulations with my students for a variety of different pedagogical goals – something I am planning on blogging about later – but today I came across an online simulation that seems very appropriate for the current economic environment.  (I found information about the game here).    The game is called Spent and the idea is that you are trying to manage a budget for your family on  a very small income.  The organization that sponsors the game, the Urban Ministries of Durham clearly has a political agenda – as well as a desire for donations.  Because of this I am reticent to use this in class but I felt it did a very good job of illustrating the challenges of the urban poor with families for people who may not have a real sense of how hard it is to live on a tight budget.  Have other people used this simulation with their students?   Did it work well?

I Civics: Aging up a K-12 curriculum

I recently discovered a neat little site called I Civics, a “web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  Founded by former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the site features curriculum and online games aimed at different lessons in American civics.  The lesson plans are clearly designed according to active learning principles.  For example, the ‘Separation of Powers’ lesson includes a role playing exercise where students create a school lunch menu by acting as each branch of government in turn.  The lesson includes an optional PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, a group activity, and several online games, plus a teacher’s guide for the instructor. Everything you need for a successful class!

Of course there is a drawback: the use of colored pencils, cutesy graphics, crossword puzzles and simple language clearly mark the material for a younger demographic. The worksheets are particularly juvenile, but then, occasionally, so too is American politics. I wouldn’t let this turn you off: the ideas and activities themselves with a bit of adaptation could easily work in the college classroom.  For example, one activity asks students to analyze a Supreme Court decision in the light of civil liberties, in a lesson on the 1st Amendment.  You could ask your students to do that and ignore the worksheet that goes with the exercise.

I particularly like the lesson on balancing the budget.  Not for the materials, but the exercises—having students act as Representatives and Senators and negotiating between several appropriations bills and resolutions—and for the idea of how to cover the budget process as a single lesson, which I confess I have found difficult to fit into my curriculum—though I do keep trying.  In fact, this may be the best feature of this site: it provides some neat ideas on how to edit down the immense material we can cover into smaller, easily digested bites.

Actually, that’s not true.  The best feature is all the cool games and simulations on American politics.  I’ve played through a few of them and they are hit and miss in terms of their potential to be made age-appropriate, but even the ones that can’t directly be used have helped generate some ideas on how to tackle this material better in the classroom.   In the coming weeks I’ll be giving you my feedback on these games and how they could be modified for our courses.