The Beer Game

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

Poverty Games, Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

Some of my sociologist friends turned me onto a common game they use in their field to teach about social class and inequality: Inequality Monopoly (also called Modified Monopoly, Development Monopoly, or Stratified Monopoly).

The basic idea is to have students play a classic game of Monopoly (8 students to a board, multiple boards as needed) but with a twist: starting resources, salary, jail, and other effects of the game change based on which ‘social class’ you are randomly assigned at the beginning. So the upper class player may start with $2500 and a couple of hotels they can place on the first property they land on, while the middle class starts with $1500 and a house, the working class $1000 and lower class $500.  Salaries change too; only the upper class gets the full $200 for passing Go.  You can also put limits on who can purchase utilities or railroads, make it easier for the wealthy to get of jail quickly, and institute a lottery system that costs 5 or 10% of your income to play.

You can also speed up the game by simply distributing property in advance; some of the rule sets below have ideas on ways to do this.

My colleagues who use this game find it a very effective way to dig into problems of poverty, social class, income inequality, and the challenges of ‘equality of opportunity’. I haven’t tried it myself, but its worth importing to our field and seeing what happens.

Resources to Play the Game:

  • The best resource available is this cite: Fisher, E.M. (July 2008). USA Stratified Monopoly: A Simulation Game about Social Class Stratification. Teaching Sociology 36(3): 272-282.

That article contains everything you need–learning objectives, instructions for the instructor, a great rules chart for each player, timeline (broken down for classes of 50, 70, and 100 minutes), discussion questions, related written assignments, and assessment.

  • This document is a great resource that’s easy accessible.  It has a set of rules, instructors for the instructor, worksheets for the students, debriefing questions and essay questions.
  • Here’s another document with very similar rules.
  • This is a wonderful set of powerpoint slides that detail several different rule sets, have notes on important concepts, and discussion questions.
  • Richard Harvey at Saint Louis University comments here on the rule set he uses and his assessment of the game.
  • Here is an interesting piece on the use of Monopoly to study institutionalized racism.
  • This video made the social media rounds a month or two ago, and is about a series of studies on the unethical behavior of the rich.  One study involved a game of monopoly with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ players–poor players getting half the starting money, half the Go salary, and only getting to use one die (thus not being able to roll doubles and take an extra turn)–and showed that the randomly determined rich players at the end of the game believed that they deserved to win the game due to good gameplay–not luck of the draw.

See earlier entries in the Poverty Games series:

Poverty Games Pt 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Poverty Games Pt 2: Third World Farmer

Poverty Games Pt 3: Free Rice

Poverty Games Pt 4: Spent

The Benefits of Cheating

Today brings the final post by guest contributor Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her previous posts are here, here, and here.

While the Stars & Triangles simulation was beneficial, it did have some drawbacks.

First, it needed to fit better with a political science approach to trade issues. The activity on Biz/ed is for economics courses. That being said, materials required only minor tweaks to complement the textbook and meet time constraints.

Second, some students initially exhibited derision for the “arts-and-crafts” nature of tracing shapes and cutting them out. However, this attitude disappeared almost immediately once the students began the simulation, and I never experienced a student refusing to participate fully in the activity.

Third, instructors need access to particular materials (paper, rulers, scissors) for the simulation. Based on class size, this might mean an out-of-pocket investment by the instructor. Alternately, instructors can request that students bring their own rulers and scissors. Because of these possible constraints, the simulation may be better suited to smaller class sizes.

CheatingFinally, I’ve had several instances of students trying to “cheat.” Typical forms of cheating include the “less industrialized states” attempting to create star and triangle templates that they can trace in an effort to improve output, and both types of teams attempting to cut multiple sheets of paper at one time. Normally, I prohibit any sort of cheating by students; however, these instances can provide teachable moments that enhance the activity.

If “less industrialized states” attempt to manufacture their own templates, it opens up a conversation on efficiency measures, research, innovation, and the creation and dissemination of knowledge—which in turn can be a stepping-stone for a discussion of Global North and Global South relations. Also this kind of cheating can be used to start a discussion on intellectual property rights, patents, and copyrights, helpful for courses that focus more on international law.

If either type of team attempts to cut multiple pieces of paper at once, efficiency measures and innovation are still appropriate topics for discussion. But, while the top sheet may produce a star or triangle that meets standards, the rest usually fail. This type of cheating can be used to open up conversations on regulatory institutions and product safety. Misshapen stars and triangles don’t present any real risks, but defective real-world products such as cars, foods, or toys do.

When employing games in a classroom, instructors should consider the potential for cheating, where it may occur, and how they can respond to it. Anticipating where cheating might occur helps make it possible for instructors be to use those instances as teachable moments.

Stars and Triangles

This morning brings a third post by guest contributor Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her previous posts are here and here.

“Stars & Triangles” is an in-class application of comparative advantage, a concept frequently included in the political economy section of politics textbooks. Unfortunately, political science students encounter economic principles like comparative advantage without having any background in economics. I’m reluctant to spend too much class time reviewing conceptual definitions when there’s other material to cover in political economy. However, if students don’t understand the foundational economic concepts, especially those related to international trade, then they’re less likely to understand the more relevant material.

RicardoStars & Triangles groups students into “states” producing two different “products”: paper stars and triangles. In the first round, all groups produce both but half of the groups are more “industrialized” — they have templates for tracing shapes, making their production process more efficient. The other half must create stars and triangles to required specifications (regulatory standards) using rulers and pencils without templates. After a pre-determined period of time, the output of each group is noted on the board, and industrialized” states are compared to the “less industrialized” states. In the second round, groups specialize: industrialized states produce stars and less industrialized states produce triangles for the same amount of time as the first session. Afterwards, production totals are again tallied and compared. Instructors can run a third round, where states trade stars for triangles.

Before using Stars & Triangles, my students frequently challenged the idea that economic specialization can create more efficient production and better market conditions. Using a TPR-based activity like Stars & Triangles helps students move from the abstract to practical application, making the concept more understandable. It also reduces their anxiety about economic concepts that they often find difficult to grasp or think are irrelevant to their political science interests. Stars & Triangles also clearly links the economic concepts presented in the textbook to class discussions about international trade and political economy.

When developing Stars & Triangles, I began with Biz/ed, a site that provides teaching and learning resources for business education. In addition to an activity for comparative advantage, the site has free worksheets and instructions. To integrate the simulation into the course, however, I needed to adapt some of the materials and adjust the run-time for the activity to fit it within a single class meeting.

As preparation, students read a textbook chapter on basic concepts in international trade and political economy that includes a section on comparative advantage. In the classroom, I review comparative advantage, distribute worksheets and other materials, create groups, and explain the rules. Once the Stars & Triangles simulation begins, students engage in TPR: they are required to take on a particular role (as a producer or regulator), and follow through with action. Producers draw and cut the shapes, while regulators make sure each shape meets “international standards” to count towards their teams’ production totals. The physical activity of drawing, cutting, and measuring is linked to economic production. For debriefing, the class works through the final questions on the worksheet together.

Running a one-session simulation as part of an introduction to political economy has improved my students’ comprehension of comparative advantage and other key economic terms used in political science. Students who participate in the simulation performed better on political economy questions on final exams. When asked to explain specific economic concepts on the final exam in a short answer section, approximately a third of the students who participated in the comparative advantage simulation reference the activity in their responses. Finally, fewer students express frustration with trying to understand certain concepts during office hours.

Overall, I have found that Stars & Triangles leads to increased comprehension as observed through improved test scores and less anxiety about economic terminology used in the political science classroom.

Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.

Surprise 2! A Simulation on Global Inequality

In the last week of my intro to IR course, another set of students took up the gauntlet laid down by the Statelessness group and did their own simulation.  This was a variation on the ‘hunger meal’ style simulation that has become fairly common: a group of people come to a meal and most are served a very tiny amount of food while a very few people get more food then they could possibly eat by themselves, allowing a discussion about hunger, global inequality, and aid.  I’ve been through several incarnations of this.  One involved spoonfuls of grits and boxes of Krispie Kreme doughnuts; another had people serve themselves from a buffet that was never refilled, and eventually ran out of food with people still waiting in line.

In this case, my students brought packs of candy bars–those packages that contain eight or ten individually wrapped Hershey bars or kit kats or Reeses peanut butter cups.


Each student in the class received a piece of paper with ten countries listed along with their respective GDPs.  The students then distributed the chocolate according to the share of global wealth each ten countries received.  So the top ten received about 60% of the chocolate (about 6 full packs of candy), the next ten 2 packs, and the rest received either individually wrapped chocolate bars, or, as they moved down the line, unwrapped squares or halves of squares.  The last person in the room had about 5 or 6 pieces of paper in his hands, but still only received two chocolates.

It made the abstract idea of inequality quite concrete.  It was 8 pm, after all, and 3 hours into a four hour class.  Chocolate was not only welcome, but quickly becoming necessary.

The students then led a discussion about how the students felt, whether  the wealthy students were obligated to give up some of their chocolate, and how they would convince the wealthy students to do so.  Violence entered the conversation (jokingly) at one point.  Eventually the discussion turned to the real-world implications, and the chocolate was widely shared.

Ultimately it was a rather informal simulation, with no preparation asked and no rules–more of a discussion with props.  But it was highly effective, keeping the students attention and helping them examine their own feelings and then apply them to the topic at hand.

One of my colleagues has her students create games to help them review for exams.  I’m tempted to try having my students all try to create some kind of game or simulation to explore topics in IR to see if they can be as generally effective as these two have been.

Poverty Games Pt. 4: Spent

Spent is a fantastic interactive simulation for teaching about poverty in the US.  The premise of the game is that you are a recently unemployed and homeless single parent, down to your last $1000.  You have to find an apartment and a job and handle all kinds of life events–from illness to car trouble to choosing between working overtime or seeing your kid’s school play–and make it through the month without running out of money.


Your first decisions are your job and your apartment.  For the former, you choose between a restaurant server, a warehouse worker, or an office temp, although you have to pass an actual typing test to take the temp job.  You find out your weekly take home pay, minus taxes, and then choose whether to opt in to a health insurance plan (which costs about 1/4 of your monthly income).  Then you choose where to live, with the cost based on proximity to work and transportation costs.  For the rest of the month, all kinds of problems arise–some with costs, and many with statistics attached to tell you why some people choose to play the lottery, go to work sick, or start smoking.  Several events allow you to ‘ask a friend for help’ and then open up a facebook status page for you to do just that.

Even if you play extremely frugally, the best result is to make it to the end of the month with some cash–but with rent due the following day. A ‘big spender’–someone who pays their mom’s doctor’s bills, buys presents for their child, attends family weddings and funerals, or pays all their own bills on time–is very likely to run out of money before the end of the month.

I wouldn’t say that the game is ‘fun’–depressing is a better term–but it does force players to be actively engaged in living on a minimal income, and can be quite useful in helping students understand the challenges of poverty and why ‘working harder’ is not really a solution.

The game can work both as an individual homework assignment or a collective exercise in class with students voting on what they want to do, as for each event there are only two or three possible options. At the end of the game there is an option to donate money to the game sponsors, Urban Ministry of Durham, in their fight against poverty and hunger.

Fun: 1/4–while well designed, the game is more depressing than fun.

Ease of use: 4/4 highly interactive and very easy to use, no instructions required.

Polisci Class Applicability: 3/4, although better for American politics than IR or comparative.

Poverty Games Part 3: Free Rice

Free Rice is a game where playing really does make a difference: sponsored by the World Food Programme, players answer questions in exchange for grains of rice which are then donated in real life through funding provided by ad sponsors.  The creators state that the goal of the game is twofold: to provide free education to all, and to help end world hunger by providing rice for free.

The gameplay is very simple, and currently available in five languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Korean.  A multiple-choice question pops up on the screen and you choose a response, with immediate feedback.  Correct responses result in advancing levels and more challenging questions. The default question type is vocabulary, but a ‘subjects’ menu allows you to choose questions on a variety of topics from literature and paintings to geography, anatomy, math, chemistry, flags, and famous quotes.  The English language option has the most subjects, but there is a separate section in English for practicing other languages: all of the above except Korean, plus Latin.  There’s also an SAT prep subject option.

The great thing about this game is it helps answer a favorite student question: “What can I do to help?”  This is something they can do immediately that makes a small difference, and the time and commitment to joining in is very small.  The game has over a million registered players, and they can play solo or in teams, for a minute or an hour.  As a direct teaching tool in political science it may be limited–the geography section can be useful if you give map quizzes in international relations; likewise if you have a language requirement this might be a neat tool for that–but as a way to show students that they can make a difference in their daily lives, and to introduce them to the World Food Programme, it can be invaluable.

Fun: 2/4–good if you are a fan of trivia style games, although its not highly interactive.

Ease of use: 3/4 there is no set up required to play the vocabulary version, but the other categories of play are hidden behind a ‘subjects’ menu that you may not notice right away.

Polisci Class Applicability: 2/4 pretty limited in terms of content and skills for the gameplay itself, with only the geography questions having direct relevance, but really nice as a tool to give to students in answer to the ‘what can I do right now’ question.

Poverty Games Pt. 1: Ayiti

Poverty Games Pt. 2: 3rd World Farmer

Poverty Games Pt. 4: Spent


Poverty Games, Pt. 2: 3rd World Farmer

Last time, I discussed a neat online game called Ayiti: The Cost of Life, which simulates life for a poor family in Haiti.  This week’s game is 3rd World Farmer, a neat game where you play as a farming family in an unidentified developing country.  Each turn you choose how to invest your funds–in crops (corn, wheat, cotton, or peanuts, with varying profits and risks), livestock (chicken, pigs, cows, elephants), tools (shovels, scythes, plows, tractors, harvesters), structures (sheds, wells, barns) and social services.  The goal of the game is unclear, other than learning the challenges of farming while dealing with droughts, civil war, and health problems, but the game ends when you buy all six social services (communications, roads, clinic, school, representative, and crop insurance).

In its main objective, the game is more effective when you fail than when you succeed.  My first few times playing this game I failed–utterly.  My entire family was dead in 10 or 12 turns.  This was due to two things: first, I did not realize that I could click on my people and that doing so gave me options such as giving them medicine, having a baby, marriage, or sending people to school.  Knowing that would have helped, but the first few times through the game I ran out of money so quickly that school and medicine were pipe dreams.  The second reason i failed was my failure to diversify my crops.  I focused on planting lots of low risk, low profit crops like corn and wheat, and ignored the high-risk, high-profit peanuts and cotton.  I bought a couple of scythes, then moved quickly to chickens, the lowest profit livestock.  Invariably, the random events that happen each turn meant that my crops would fail, refugees or guerrillas would steal my tools or livestock, or corrupt officials would take my savings. ETA: I’ve since played a few more times, and even making these corrections, I lose the game 80% of the time.  My first victory was at least partially a fluke.

I did very well on my most recent play.  I diversified immediately, using the starting $50 to buy 1-2 of each crop.  I kept doing this until eventually I bought some tools, then a shed and well so I could buy pigs (i skipped the chickens–luckily too, as the turn that I bought pigs there was a chicken plague).  Livestock remains each turn but crops need to be replaced, so eventually I had a nice herd of pigs and cattle, and eventually two elephants, while I continued to diversify my crops, relying more on peanuts and cotton, and building better tools.  The first few social services help, but the representative is really key to project your crops and savings from outside forces.

Unsurprisingly the game was more fun when I wasn’t losing drastically, but as we stress here on the blog, the learning is in the losing.  Frustration from the random events that destroy what you build, the need to send family members away for quick cash, and inability to create lasting wealth is important, as it creates a learning opportunity for the cycle of poverty and why it is not easily overcome.  Fixing my strategy and creating a ‘winning’ situation was made more satisfying as a result, and showed the real difference that the ‘social services’ make in protecting you from the worst of the random events.

Unlike Ayiti, then, which is fun to play multiple times but does not necessarily add anything, 3rd World Farmer really benefits from multiple plays.  It might work well as a team game, where the students act as a family and make collective decisions about how to build their farm; it could also work as a professor walkthrough, where the class collectively indicates how the professor should set up the farm.  In the latter case you could duplicate my experience, not letting the students know that you can click on the family members and give them more options, and then playing it through again with that information.  It will also work just fine as an individual assignment in-class or at home, and that will allow students to share their different experiences from the game and learn from each other.

The game might also work well in a non-online variant where you have students act as farming families and give them the options in the game, but this will necessitate a lot of work for the professor, particularly with all the calculations required.  A simplified version with fewer options might work very well though, and provide more student interaction, where they could decide whether to pay into a collective with each other, or raid each others farms for tools or livestock.

Fun: 2/4, as its not very interactive, and the random events can be really disheartening in the way they can defeat even a solid play style.

Ease of use: 2/4 as the randomness and unclear interface can really be frustrating

Polisci Class Applicability: 3/4, again for discussing issues of poverty and simulating challenges in rural life in developing countries.

Poverty Games Pt. 1: Ayiti The Cost of Life

Poverty Games Pt. 3: Free Rice

Poverty Games Pt. 4: Spent