The Marshmallow Tower Game

Along the lines of my last post, I’ve tweaked another game that I have used previously — the marshmallow challenge. My goal was to illustrate how economic development can be considered a collective action problem in which trust plays a key role. Here are the rules of the game:

  • Each team has 18 minutes to build a tower topped by a marshmallow using the materials provided.
  • The members of the team that builds the tallest tower earn 25 points each.
  • A “Red” player secretly placed on your team gets 25 points if their real team wins.
  • If a team correctly identifies its Red player, each team member wins 25 points. Only one guess per team.

The debriefing discussion included my brief description of Rousseau’s stag hunt scenario, and these questions:

  • If one considers the height of a tower as an indicator of a society’s level of economic development, why did some societies (teams) develop more quickly than others?
  • Did cultural values promote trust among team members?
  • What was in each person’s best interest? Were these interests achieved?
  • How did having a Red on your team affect your team’s behavior?
  • Who do you think the Reds were? Why?
  • How does it feel to be accused of being a Red?

At the very end of the discussion, I revealed that there were no Red players.

The class had ten students that I divided into three teams. One team’s tower collapsed when time expired, but none of the teams exhibited a high degree of dysfunction due to suspicions about the identity of its Red player. As usual, I think the game would work better in a class with more students.