When a Game Fails

An inadvertent update to a 2015 post on the perils of small classes:

I recently ran a game in two classes that I had hoped would demonstrate the effects of ethnic heterogeneity in dictatorships and democracies. The basic mechanics of the game:

The class is split into groups. Each person gets a playing card. Card suit represents ethnicity, though I didn’t tell students this. A card’s numeric value equates to the power level of the person holding it. If someone in a group has a face card, then the group is a dictatorship. The person in the group with the highest value face card is the dictator, who makes all decisions. If no one in the group has a face card, then the group is a democracy, with decisions made by majority vote. The numeric values of the cards don’t matter.

The game is played in multiple rounds, with a greater number of points at stake in each round — I used five rounds, worth 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 points, respectively. These points count toward the final course grade. In every round, each group allocates its points to its members according to the rules above. If anyone in a group is dissatisfied with how the points were distributed, the person can recruit a cluster of allies who have cards of the same suit to challenge the distribution. In a dictatorship, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s combined power level exceeds that formed by the dictator’s allies. In a democracy, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s total power level exceeds that of the rest of the group. When there is a successful challenge, the group has to distribute its points in a different way. Each round had a time limit of just a few minutes, and if a group failed to successfully allocate its points before a round ended, the group’s points for that round disappeared.

I injected a few other rules as the rounds progressed, such as “anyone can exchange their card for a random card from the deck” and “anyone is free to leave the group they are in and join another group, or form a new group, as long as that group has at least five people.”

My expectation was that dictators, if at all possible given the composition of their groups, would only distribute points to people in the group who held cards of the same suit that they did, while students in democracies would, at some point, be forced to try to form coalitions across suits that could withstand challenges.

What I didn’t expect: both dictatorships and democracies created systems to distribute points as equitably as possible across all members and rounds. This happened in a class of twenty-two students — large enough to create several groups — and a class of eleven students, where students were in just one group. Students simply refused to act competitively against each other, even though doing so could have improved their course grade.

Perhaps the stakes were too small — I calculate grades on a scale of 1,000 points — but I find it hard to justify making a classroom game worth ten or twenty percent of the entire course. I also think that the probability that students will engage in simulated inter-ethnic conflict will increase with class size. But I don’t teach 50- or 100-student classes. I’m lucky if I get thirty.

I’m now left pondering how I can tweak the game’s mechanics to make it produce the effect that I want it to produce in very small classes. Perhaps somehow incorporating loss aversion is a solution — give each student a certain number of points at the beginning of the game, and in each round require the transfer of points between players of different ethnicities — taxation in the case of a democracy, and confiscation in dictatorships — unless a challenge succeeds.

I’m open to suggestions.

One Reply to “When a Game Fails”

  1. I use a few different simulations/games in my classes, and I’ve found that students are much more equitable/altruistic when small amounts of extra credit points are concerned than when there’s nothing on the line outside the structure of the game. They seem to be more willing to attack, defect, etc. when the consequences are victory within the game alone – not a tangible effect on their grade. I agree that increasing the grade effects might lead to the behavior you expect/seek, but I also agree that’s it problematic in terms of pedagogy.

    As always, I find value even in “failed games” because at least we can discuss why we don’t see such outcomes in the real world. Still frustrating when things don’t go along with expectations, though.

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