Putin and ObamaThere was some discussion at this year’s TLC spent about the pros and cons of different off-the-shelf simulations, including Statecraft. Here is a synopsis of the comments about it, with the usual disclaimers: this review reflects a non-representative sample and I have no financial connections with Statecraft‘s parent company. Previous posts about Statecraft are here, herehere, and here.

Instructors who had used Statecraft liked the way in which its participants experience the complexities of international relations. Students build nation-states from ground up, which illustrates the interconnection of institutions and interests. The entire process is mediated through simulation’s website so the instructor does not have to manage play. However, negative outcomes can overwhelm students’ achievements and make them frustrated (which isn’t necessarily a result too far removed from reality). More problematic is the user interface, which doesn’t allow the instructor to see the real-time status of all the teams on a single webpage. Because the instructor does not have a full picture of what’s happening in the simulation, even if one is wanted, instructors must refer students to the dense Statecraft instruction manual or online customer support in the event of technical questions.

Statecraft favors students who are familiar with gaming, but the gamers find it badly designed while those who are not gamers can get overwhelmed trying to learn the simulation’s rules. If a few students treat Statecraft as a typical game in which they can rampage through a fictional world and disregard the repercussions of their actions, it can ruin the experience for the entire class. Students also often find the newsfeed to be distracting or irrelevant to game-play. Some students simply don’t engage with the simulation or their classmates, something that is always a possibility with team-based exercises.

Statecraft requires a major time commitment whether it is run during class or outside of it. Instructors have to decide whether the costs of Statecraft make it too expensive given the pedagogical outcomes.

Wealth Inequality Game

Here is a game that I recently ran in my class.  This was one of those occasions where I was thinking about how to teach a particular set of lessons, developed the game during the drive to campus, and decided to run it, half-baked as it was.  Despite that, it worked very well. As always, feel free to use and adapt in your classes–just let me know in the comments how it went!  A version of the below post was also recently published in the May 2014 ALIAS newsletter.

Wealth Allocation Inequality Game


This is a very simple game that helps illustrate some important ideas about wealth inequality, voting rules in international financial institutions, and the connection between wealth, merit, and fairness.

In the game, students must decide through discussion how to distribute a resource—a coin worth extra credit–amongst themselves.  In each round, there are a different amount of coins available for distribution, and the rules for distribution change.  At the beginning of the game, there are enough coins for everyone to have one, but they become scarcer as the game goes on, and those with more coins from prior rounds are given advantages that makes it easier for them to acquire coins in later rounds.  Those who receive fewer coins in early rounds are actually silenced in later rounds.

The point of the game is to illustrate how in the international economic system, wealth can beget wealth, and the power is in the hands of the wealthy.  Those who are poor tend to remain poor, and become voiceless in the discussion.  Using extra credit ties the exercise to students feelings about merit and fairness, and helps us explore the role of these qualities in wealth and the behavior of the wealthy.  Due to this, the game can easily be adapted to lessons on poverty, structural inequality, and even the political process of redistribution of income.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Give students a fun and engaging way to explore weighty concepts of global wealth inequality
  2. Provide an application of weighted voting that helps students understand how such rules matter in terms of outcomes.
  3. Illustrate one set of arguments on how rich countries stay rich and poor countries stay poor.
  4. Help students examine their thoughts and emotions about fairness and merit into and use it as a springboard for discussion about the obligations of wealthy states to poor ones.

 Equipment needed: some kind of monetary unit, such as fake coins, poker chips, printed money, etc., but with no value denoted on it.

# of students: tested fine with 20, but is easily scaled by size of the class; in very large classes you might split the students into groups by section to keep it manageable.

 Prior knowledge: none necessary, as this is an organic game (Kollars and Rosen 2013), but should be done in conjunction with a lesson on north-south relations and global inequality.  It can also work easily as an inroad for discussing poverty and inequality on a more local scale.

 Introductory Instructions: Tell the students that you are going to make a certain number of coins available for them to distribute amongst themselves, and that there will be several rounds to the game.  Each coin will have a set value of extra credit (EC) points (I structure my classes to be worth 10000 points so that EC is generally not overwhelming); the number of coins they have at the end of the game will determine how much EC they earn.

 Additional Instructions for the Instructor:  Do not tell students what each round is about; only tell them the rules. After you set the rules for each round, resist the urge to interfere in the discussion. In fact, studiously ignore the students until they have reached a decision for the round and inform you of that.  Don’t answer any of their questions, and don’t help them.  Instead, focus on recording their reactions and arguments so you can return to them for the debrief.

Students may want to redistribute their coins at various points in the game; it is up to you whether you want to let them.  I usually let them do so in between rounds, but not during.

 Gameplay:  The game has four rounds.  At the start of each round, you put a number of coins on a central table, instruct the students on the decision-making procedures, and then tell them the current value of the coins.  Feel free to change the rounds up and adapt to your group’s gameplay.  They always have the option to leave the coins in the common pool.  (You can, if you like, allow this to count as an investment, where coins in the common pool generate new coins for future rounds).

Round 1: Consensus + Plentiful Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = number of students in the class.  Decision on distribution of coins must be by consensus.  Coin value = 5 points of EC each.

Round 2: Majoritarianism + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets 1 vote.  Coin value =5 points of EC each.

At the end of Round 2, record the coin count of each student; this is needed for the next round.

Round 3: Weighted Voting + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets a number of votes equal to the # of coins they have.  No redistribution of coins is allowed until after the round is over.  Anyone with zero coins at the start of this round has no votes, and in fact is not allowed to talk at all during the discussion. Coin value = 10 EC points each.

Round 4: Absolute Rulers + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available =# of students/4.  They are given directly to the two students with the highest # of coins; they may choose to redistribute them or not.  They can accept arguments from the other students, but the decision is entirely theirs; the coins belong to them and they can keep them if they wish. Coin value = 10 EC points each.


Following the Steinwachs (1992) model of debriefing, start with unpacking the emotional reaction to the game.  Frustration and anger can flare up during this game, if perceived ‘undeserving’ students get large amounts of extra credit, or if the EC is distributed equally and those with greater need feel slighted.  One the emotions get unpacked a bit, move on to the second stage: analysis.  Ask them about their decision-making process, focusing in particular on how they decided who should get EC—were they committed to equality, to rewarding students who had demonstrated merit (via strong class performance), or to helping those students in need (those who admitted to low grades)?  Did considerations of effort weigh on their minds?  Did some students sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of others, and if so, why?  The third stage is where you connect the game back to the course material.  In an IR class, you might discuss how the game illustrated the concept of weighted voting, and whether that resulted in desirable outcomes.  Or you could discuss whether their anger at the results should be redirected toward the equivalent actors in the international system (that is, if the wealthy students refused to redistribute their EC, and this made them angry, are they also angry at wealthy states who only redistribute a small amount of their GDP?)  I also found it useful to discuss perceptions of the poor—particularly the commonly held belief that wealthy people have more money because they work harder, and poorer people are simply lazy.

A fourth stage of debrief is always useful in a new game: ask the students what aspects of the game help them understand these concepts, and which don’t, and get feedback so you can adjust the game for future incarnations.

 Adaptations, Applications and Related Exercises:

This game can easily be adapted to lessons in other courses, such as structural inequality, local or national poverty, and decision-making,

You can also run the game by creating fake students, or having students play a role, where the information is very stark and available.  So each player has a given percentage grade in the course which can be openly shared, and students can choose to allocate or not a pool of extra credit to individuals.  You can then also make the allocation pool up from given grades—so a student with a 90% can choose to award 10% points to someone with a 50% if they wish.  The abstract nature of this helps them put into perspective the amount of extra credit being awarded (a grade moving from 50% to 52% is generally viewed as more acceptable than a single student getting 170 points in coins while others only get 10 or 20), and allows us to look at the differences between awarding gains (an extra credit allocation pool) v. losses (where points must be redistributed from those who already earned them).

If using the game for global inequality, a good follow up exercise is the Global Inequality Game in the Jet Wiki, where students attempt to guess at the distribution of global population and wealth.  As that game is more informational, it serves as a nice follow up for this one.


Kollars, N. and Rosen, A.M. (2013) “Simulations as Active Assessment? Typologizing by Purpose and Source. Forthcoming in Journal of Political Science Education 9, 2 (2013).

Steinwachs, B. (1992). “How to Facilitate a Debriefing.” Simulation & Gaming 23(2): 186-95.

Whodunnit? Part 2: Murder Mystery in the Classroom

Back in July I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of using a murder mystery party as a classroom tool.  Today I did just that in my methods class as a nice use of the half-week before Thanksgiving.

Essentially I bought and then adapted a commercially available murder mystery and ran it during a 1h20 session of class.  I assigned each student a role a month in advance, giving them a basic character sheet, some information about the world we were in (it was fairy tale themed), and instructions on what would happen on the day of the event.  The only thing required was willing participation, but I awarded extra credit for those who showed up in costume, threw themselves into the performance, or correctly guessed the murderer.  At the event itself (which I held in our usual classroom, but played music through the computer and brought in some baked goods) I gave them each a nametag, a list of initial objectives (questions to ask other characters and information to impart), some play money to use for bribing information out of others, and another copy of their character sheet.  They had 30 minutes to achieve their initial objectives before the actual murder occurred; then they received a second set of objectives and information and had another 30 minutes to try to figure out who committed the crime, why, and how.  The last 20 minutes I reserved for accusations, explanations, and debrief.

In terms of the event, everything went very smoothly and the students all appeared to enjoy themselves.  I played the victim so they could all focus on solving the crime, but I think that many of them got a bit too caught up in playing their roles and paid less attention to the evidence that I had gathered for them.  None of the students managed to guess the murderer, although several correctly identified the motive and/or the means.  Quite a few of them based their accusations solely on ‘shady’ behavior by a given character; some students admitted to never looking at the physical evidence despite my posting it prominently on the board and suggesting they do so.  I almost considered posting copies of the evidence online and tasking them with thinking everything through a bit more and not revealing the solution until next week, but decided against it mainly because I could not trust that the student playing the murdered would be able to keep quiet for a week, and had no opportunity to ask without raising suspicion. In retrospect, I should have done so.

The debrief phase did involve me tying the exercise back to methods–the whole point was that this was an exercise in analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions, and as students explained their reasoning I pushed them to discuss the evidence and how it influenced (or in several cases played no role in) their deliberations.  But as with most simulations, there simply was not enough time to really dig into this enough to satisfy me.

The Pros:

–the students had a blast, and anytime you can associate methods with ‘fun’ is a win

–the exercise really does have excellent ties to the overall course lessons and learning outcomes.

The cons:

–the exercise definitely needs more time.  Everyone managed to achieve their objectives, but there was little time available for students to really think through the information and evidence, and the debriefing was more abbreviated than I would have liked.

–this was also somewhat time consuming for me.  Although the mystery I bought contained everything necessary to run the event, I need to make a number of adaptations.  This may be particular to this mystery and/or company, but there were several mistakes in the mystery (conflicting information about where one character was living, for example) and the murder was pretty much impossible to solve as written.  I know this because I did a dry run with some friends (mostly faculty from various departments at my university) and got a lot of useful feedback on it.  I therefore had to re-write all of the objectives for each of the 15 characters, both to correct for the inaccurate information and to add information so that every player had enough to go on to be able to have a possibility of solving the crime.  That, as you can imagine, took some time, as did putting together the pre-game envelopes for each student.  All told, it took probably 3-4 hours of prep time for me in the last two days–not including the original character assignment or any time spent doing the prep for the dry run.

I still think this exercise has a lot of potential, so I plan to do it again but with some adjustments.  I would still do the roleplay in a single class session, but give them the evidence and the ability to continue questioning each other online over several days.  Then each of them will have to turn in a 1 page report stating their case, due at the next class (say Thursday for role play, Tuesday for paper + solution and debrief).

I also may experiment with smaller versions of this–ditch the roleplaying and just lay out the facts of the case and evidence for them and set them to solving the crime, rather than participating in it.  I think it will still be fun, but will keep the session more focused on the lessons at hand.

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

Climate Change Games, Pt. 1: Climate Challenge

Having finished my series exploring Poverty Games out there on the internet, I want to turn to another topic that can be difficult to teach and where games may help.

Climate change can be a tough subject to teach, particularly when you only have a single class session on it.  A group of students may have widely different levels of knowledge on the subject, and many may share the skepticism of 40% of Americans who doubt that climate change is either happening at all or due to man-made activities.  That can be a substantial hurdle to jump if you want to have a discussion on policy options to tackle climate change–if they don’t believe that greenhouse gases play a role in global warming, then there is little point to discussing strategies to reduce the amount of GHGs going into the atmosphere.

As my primary research is on this subject, I think a lot about how to teach climate change.  And I’m always on the lookout for games that assist me with the problems of teaching climate change.

Today’s game does not really help with the dilemma I outlined above. It requires some buy-in from the students that climate change is a problem worth solving–indeed, that bias is built into the game, where the leaders of various regions of the world all miraculously agree that climate change is a problem and are generally willing to adopt costly measures to combat it.  I would love to be in a world with this political reality.  So playing this game will require either existing buy-in from your students, or some preparation on your part to show them the data on the correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature.  That data, combined with polls of climate scientists on the topics, plus a metaphor about insurance* generally get my students to the point of accepting the basic premise that this is an issue worthy of discussion.

The game is Climate Challenge, sponsored by the BBC.  Players take on the leadership of the ‘European Nations’ and over the course of ten terms lasting one hundred years must choose what policies to implement to try to mitigate climate change.  Most of the game focuses on the domestic angle, with players choosing from amongst policies at different levels and areas: national  (such as a fuel tax or planting forests)  industry (perhaps switching from coal to natural gas); trade (you can import or export energy, water, food, and green technologies); local (promote windfarms or energy efficiency standards); and household (such as promoting recylcling).  In a given turn there are dozens of policy options, some of which are only available based on previous adoptions, but you can only choose six. Each policy affects your country’s resources, including money, energy, food, water, and pollution.  Investing in water infrastructure at the local level, for example, costs a lot of money but increases the amount of water available.

There is also an approval rating factor to consider.  Some policies–such as build more roads, or subsidize aviation–increase pollution but are quite popular with the people.  Public opinion is indicated through sample quotes accompanying each policy as well as a dial on the screen. Failure to maintain your approval rating can result in you being kicked out of office. I managed to get kicked out on turn three–and the game immediately ended.

There is an international dimension to the game that is supposed to mimic the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, where you ‘negotiate’ with other leaders to agree to emission targets.  The only negotiating tactic is a straight up bribe, though, and generally as long as Europe does its share of GHG reduction the other countries will approve reductions with little effort on the part of the player.

At the end of the game you receive scores on three areas: Environment, Economy, and Popularity.  In my first run through the game I scored 85%, 0%, and 100%, respectively.  I had no idea that Economy was measured, so on the last turn I spent all my euros on popular measures like increasing pensions.

Overall, Climate Challenge is really fun.  Its very easy to learn with a clear interface and there is a tutorial to guide new players.  It is also very effective as a teaching tool, as it quickly and visually gives students an understanding of the different policy options that exist, the various levels of government that need to be involved, and the tradeoffs required to successfully combat climate change. A fuel tax, for example, is very effective at both increasing money and reducing pollution, but it is very unpopular.  In the game this is easily handled by going for a very popular policy to balance out the losses in the polls–and this provides a good point for discussion with the students about how true the game is to the political realities of addressing climate change.

Best use for this game is as an independent homework assignment before a class on climate change, with either questions for them to answer and turn in or a discussion in-class to act as a debriefing.

Fun: 2/4  Not sure how enthusiastic students will be about picking policies, although the min/maxers among us might get a kick out of it.

Ease of use: 4/4 very clear interface, and a tutorial is available.

Polisci Class Applicability: 4/4, as it really helps students understand the political challenges of climate change, and in a way that provides lots of room for discussion during the debrief.

*I point out that lots of people get fire insurance for their houses even though the chance of their house burning down is small, because we want to have some measure of protection in case an unlikely but catastrophic event happens.  We can generally agree that if climate change is real, it has the potential to cause a host of catastrophic problems (such as rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, droughts, and floods, increased disease vectors, excess heat, etc).  While its certainly possible that climate change is a hoax, that climate scientists are completely wrong–I ask them if they are willing to bet everything that this is true, and not take out perhaps some insurance just in case.  While this does not convince them all, it generally gets them to the point of willing to have a conversation about the issue, which is ultimately what I care about the most.

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. 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