Poverty Games, pt. 1: Ayiti The Cost of Life

In my spare time I like to play-test online games and feel them out for classroom use.  I’ve been working through quite a few of games about poverty and hunger and plan to share my thoughts on them here.

Ayiti, The Cost of Life, is one that we have discussed previously on the blog.  You play as a family of five in Haiti and make decisions about how each family member should spend their time each season–working, getting an education, or resting.  Each member has stats on their health, happiness, and education that you have to monitor, and your success is measured by the number of diplomas you earn over the 16 turns of the game.  I’ve played this game maybe 6 or 7 times now and its pretty fun.  At the start of the game you choose a focus–happiness, money, health, or education–and it seems like the decision does matter.  The one time I chose health, almost my entire family died of cholera or tuberculosis, and I found there was little I could do to stop it.   Education works out the best in my experience, which is unsurprising given the goal of the game.  Even with that as a choice, it’s difficult to get everybody in the family an adequate education, as health issues can be quite difficult to manage.  I’ve found that ‘education’ is the go-to answer for a lot of my students as a way of fixing issues of poverty and human rights, and this game may help them see why its not such an easy answer.  As an assignment then, this game can be quite effective as its pretty easy to learn and illustrates a number of challenges with getting out of the poverty cycle.  Its also pretty fun and has high re-playability. It would work best either as a homework assignment with questions to answer, maybe linked to a good reading, or as an in-class activity in a computer lab accompanied with a discussion afterwards.

Fun: 3/4 Although the subject matter keeps it from being completely fun, it is an enjoyable game experience.

Ease of Use: 3/4 Its fairly intuitive but does take a while to learn how to move your family members from place to place and to understand all the options.

Polisci Class Application: 3/4 Definitely a good game for understanding the connections between education, poverty, and health.

Poverty Games Pt. 2

Poverty Games Pt 3

Poverty Games Pt 4

World Without Oil: An Alternate Reality Game

A great resource for anyone teaching courses in environmental or energy politics, World Without Oil is an alternate reality game that took place in 2007, where participants imagined how their lives would change as a result of a steep increase in the price of oil, followed by a sharp decrease in supply over the course of 32 weeks.

The designers created ten lesson plans that use the material created during the game, all of them available at the game’s website.  There are some great tools here–videos, blogs, comics, news articles–to create the alternate reality of the game world, along with group activities, individual projects, discussion questions, and action items.  You can use as much or as little of the lesson plans as you like.

In lesson one, for example, students are introduced to the simulation by being told that gas has jumped to $4.12/gallon and that there are rumors of a shortage coming.  A video and comic entry accompany this news.  After reviewing some important concepts, students discuss how they will respond in groups and are then given some blog entries written by others to which they can compare their responses. In the ensuing group discussion, you can review and then quiz the students on the extent of petroleum use in the world economy.  Finally, students are asked to reflect by blogging their own intended reaction to the news about gas prices.

I’m using the game in my upper level seminar on Environmental and Energy Security as an extra credit project.  On Thursdays we learn how the oil shortage has progressed this week, do some of the related activities, and students earn extra points by writing blog entries documenting their own experiences on the course website.  I used it once before without the extra credit component and the students gave the exercises high marks. I’ve found that its a good way to get students talking about a global issue from a very local and individual perspective and that it therefore helps them see such connections in other topics in the course.

My Real World Survivor Experience

I recently returned from a trip to Heifer International’s Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas as part of my experimental new course called Real World Survivor: Experiencing Poverty through Heifer Ranch. After learning about the issues captured by the UN Millennium Development Goals, we–14 college students, 6 local high school students and 8 assorted faculty and staff–headed to Heifer to live in their Global Village for a three day simulation on hunger and poverty. The upper level course is team taught by myself, a philosopher, and an education professor and is the prototype for the interdisciplinary keystone courses that will cap our new general education program.

There are so many things I want to comment on now that we are more than halfway through the class:  How fascinating, enriching and frustrating it is to team-teach with two other faculty, especially with an entire university community watching.  The benefits of working in an environment where courses like this can be developed and put into action in less than a year, coupled with the aggravations of getting paid very little for a lot of work.  The challenge of trying to intentionally incorporate six different skills into the course assignments and assessments. Handling the differing expectations of teachers and students, where the teachers see the course as New, Innovative, and Fundamentally Crucial to the University’s Mission, and the students see it as ‘that class I have on Wednesday evening.’ The new research questions about community development and experiential learning that are running rampant in my head. The joys of watching students handle living in hunger and poverty for three days and come out the other side stronger as individuals and a community–at least for now.  And most importantly: how I managed to sleep on the abandoned school bus rife with hornet nests that served as my ‘home’ during the simulation.
In the coming weeks I plan to comment on all of the above as I think my experience with this course really illustrates the challenges and benefits of building an entire course around active learning principles.

IR Theory and Behavioral Economics

At this early point in the semester, I’m introducing students to the basics of international relations theories. This past week I used a simple exercise in behavioral economics to demonstrate liberalism. I scribbled numbers ranging from 17 to 91 on small pieces of scrap paper and randomly distributed them to students. Instructions were as follows:

  • You are all hungry and you all like to eat chocolate donuts.

  • Each person’s hunger will be satisfied by half of a donut.

  • Donuts cost $1.00 each.

  • The donut store only sells whole donuts.

  • The piece of paper that you have lists the amount of money, in cents, that you have in your pocket.

  • Your objective is to satisfy your hunger by getting half of a donut.

  • Once you achieve that objective, sit down.

As expected, students wandered about the room asking each other how much money each of them had and quickly paired off when they found that pooling their money resulted in a sum of at least 100, demonstrating that cooperation can allow parties with the same interest to achieve that interest. Some students were left hungry because they could not find a partner with enough money — another expected outcome.

What I found most interesting about the exercise was that none of the students whose combined sums of money exceeded a dollar volunteered to give any of their extra, unused money to other students. None of the students who remained in need asked classmates who had already sat down for money either.

When I asked the class why no altruistic actions or requests occurred, they were perplexed. Each student had focused on the same strategy to achieve the specified goal. Once the goal was achieved, the “winners” did not consider the plight of others. The “losers” assumed they had “lost” and gave up instead of trying alternative methods to obtain money. This led to a discussion of whether nation-states behave in the same manner.

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.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

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?

The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.