Wargaming for Learning: A robust examination of how educational gaming adds value to traditional instructional techniques

My latest article is out in Journal of Political Science Education and I’m excited to share it with ALPS readers. Alongside Dr. Lisa Kerr, also at the Naval War College, we set out to do a robust examination of whether educational gaming is worth the extra time it takes; in other words, do students learn more by playing a game (in this case, a bespoke war-game called War at Sea) when they’ve already encountered the material through traditional methods of learning such as reading, lecture, and discussion of a case study? Our research says yes.

Continue reading “Wargaming for Learning: A robust examination of how educational gaming adds value to traditional instructional techniques”

Reflecting on the “World Climate Simulation”: Extra Credit? Bueller? Bueller?

I am following up on an exercise I introduced a few weeks ago (see this post from Nov 3, 2023). Strangely enough, for the first time ever, it did not go entirely as I thought it would. To remind you, I provide two incentives for the classroom while they try to stop climate warming and get it below a 2-degree temperature increase by the year 2100.

  1. If the whole class manages to get below the desired temperature increase, everybody receives an extra credit point.
  2. The group with the least amount of commitments receives an additional extra credit point.

Based on prior experiences, what usually happens is that students are initially confused by the exercise, the numbers, and the task at hand. Through two rounds of thinking, talking to their teammates, and then later negotiating with the other countries’ team members, they eventually manage to figure out a way to slow down climate warming. Largely, this happens because they realize that if they do not manage to find some compromise and agreement, no one will receive an extra credit point. They eventually accept that not everybody can commit the least, and they are willing to take that hit in exchange for everyone at least receiving one extra credit point on their final grade.

Image: Media for Literacy Blog, Reggie Grant

Not this time. Although after two rounds of negotiations, my students were stating that an agreement had been reached, when the first group provided their new commitments on carbon emission, deforestation, and afforestation they apparently provided not the numbers that had been agreed upon. This in turn prompted ALL the other groups to renege on their climate commitments, and the class did not manage to decrease climate warming below the desired temperature point. And this outcome genuinely surprised me.

Granted, simulations are never guaranteed to provide a desired outcome. I operate in a realm of unpredictable actors (aka my students) who do not live in my head and know what is “best”. I know that when I provide these two types of incentives, I pour fuel in the fire. But I incorporate them to simulate more clearly the need to overcome a collective action problem. In the case of “solving” climate warming, the countries represented harbor historical, economic, and cultural tensions that require taking the high road to address this transnational problem, which will ultimately affect all countries around the world.

I was comforted in the past by the students’ realization that the breaking of the fourth wall in the simulation was necessary (overcoming their obstacles and motivations to receive all the extra credit points) to receive at least some of the carrot that I was dangling in front of them. One extra credit point –in the past – was better than no extra credit point.  This semester, though, that realization never materialized. This is truly strange to me. A debrief after the exercise showed that the students did not consider the fact that they would not get any extra credit at all. They were largely motivated by the second additional extra credit point, without realizing that they came together. There was just a lot of frustration going around on how the first team reneged on the initial agreement. It surely was an interesting lesson in the trust component in international agreements.

Although I want to continue this exercise next semester, I wonder if this was a fluke, a fault in the set-up, or a changing understanding of what it means to cooperate transnationally.

A Game Design Checklist

As usual, teams of students in my economic development & environmental change course are building games in a semester-long project. I created this game design checklist as an individual low-stakes assignment. I told students to share their checklists with teammates so that they could collaboratively identify faulty aspects of their team’s game and fix them. My hope is that the checklist will help ensure that students follow the design criteria that I have specified, something that has previously been a problem.

I have twenty students in this course. Seventeen completed the assignment. Of those, one uploaded a blank checklist to Canvas. Another copied and pasted my design criteria into the checklist and did not write anything specific about the game her team is building. So a total of five students, twenty-five percent of the class, earned a zero on the assignment. Looks like the pandemic of learned helplessness continues.

Thanksgiving Duck and Running Large Classroom Games

First, what is everyone thankful for this year? Share your comments! 🙂

I’m thankful for my family, working with great colleagues, and the two ducks thawing in my fridge. My wife and I have never liked turkey, and aside from trying turducken (too dry) and goose (expensive duck) once each, we’ve roasted up two ducks every Thanksgiving since 1996. My wife loves post-Thanksgiving sandwiches the best, where she layers duck, stuffing, and cranberry sauce between two thick-cut slices of buttered and lightly toasted bread. The look she gets on her face with the first bite is best described as rated PG-13.

Next Wednesday, I kick off Cold Winter, my end-of-course exercise for POLS 131: Current World Problems (think intro to IR and CP for non-political science majors). POLS 131 sections range from 100 to 200 students, so it’s quite a handful to run even with my TAs and ~2 student assistants. Students form six-person teams early in the semester and design a state, IGO, or NGO using the DIME model (diplomacy, intelligence/information, military, economic). It is straightforward for the state teams, but the IGO and NGO teams must think creatively about how the model fits their structures (for example, economic for an NGO might mean how they solicit donations, and military might mean how they hire security). Aside from using real-world cities for their state capitals or headquarters, the teams otherwise create everything from scratch (albeit they can use real states, IGOs, and NGOs for inspiration).

Discord sreenshot from a previous Cold Winter exercise

During the exercise, the teams react to an evolving international crisis. It’s usually a zombie apocalypse, but I’ve run it with evil robots, too (at some point, I’ll use vampires or werewolves). Why a speculative crisis? It encourages students to think outside the box without preconceived notions and avoids partisanship associated with real-world issues. I know how the scenario starts, but I improvise the rest based on how teams react and apply course concepts. It’s four days of absolute chaos, but feedback from previous semesters suggests that the students love it–it makes the course material come alive.

I use Discord to manage the game, which is fantastic for running large and specific events (in contrast, I don’t like using Discord for day-to-day communication). I set up channels for each team, a news and intelligence channel where I post scenario updates, a request for information channel for teams to ask questions, and a white cell channel just for myself and my assistants. I deputize my TAs and student assistants to adjudicate questions and events as they circulate around the room, which I then add to the scenario. Even with students using Discord, the room is a raucous cacophony of shouting and hustling students.

Students are not graded on their in-game performance; rather, they submit an after-action report essay in which they reflect on their team’s strategies, failures, and successes. This way, they can take risks during the game without worrying about grades.

I’d love to write this up for, say, the Journal of Political Science Education or International Studies Perspectives, but the hard part is conveying the improvisation required. I can teach someone how to build the exercise, but I don’t know how to teach someone how to be a dungeon master (it’s a skill I picked up over many years. That, and I don’t get stage fright). I’m open to suggestions and a co-author on the subject of improv!

Using the “World Climate Simulation” in Class

When teaching International Relations, the issue of climate change is unavoidable. I found myself a couple of semesters ago in a position where I got frustrated about my stale lecture on this issue. Climate change is man-made, the world is one fire, and our students are experiencing it daily. How can I add to this in class without just shouting “look at the data”?

The internet came to the rescue: I found the “World Climate Simulation”, a role-playing game from Climate Interactive (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative). I will forego, explaining the simulation in detail, because the simulation’s website is exhaustive enough, and I would end up simply copying what they already explain. Instead, I will briefly go through some key points and considerations that I have, after conducting the simulation now three times in different learning environments.

C-Roads Interactive Climate Change Simulation Dashboard

  1. The purpose of the simulation is that country and region representatives (i.e., the United States or Other Developing Nations) come to an agreement to lower and slow down the warming of the globe. The simulation illustrates that if all countries around the world won’t change any of their behavior by 2100, the global temperature will increase by 3.3 C, which will have detrimental and irreversible effects on human existence and the global biodiversity. Negotiations and discussions between the global players aim to bring the rate to below 2 C.
    1. The simulation provides character sheets for each country/region. They are adaptable to class size (I use six; but that is not necessary).Students must make decisions on when their country/region will reach peak emission rates, when/if they will reduce emission levels, by how much, and whether they will support afforestation and prevent deforestation (and at what rate).
    1. The simulation also provides great slides that allow you, as the educator, to set the scene.
  2. I pair the simulation with two readings/media:
    1. Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”An episode of the New York Times Daily Podcast (“Who pays the bill for climate change?”, 2022).
    1. With both of these, students are exposed to both the ideas of free riding, collective action, and inherent conflicts regarding the responsibility to tackle climate change.
      1. Based on these readings, I add two specific incentives for the students throughout the simulation:
        1. If they can change the trajectory of climate warming by 2100 to below 2 C, the entire class gets 1 Extra Credit Point.
        1. The group that commits the least will get an additional Extra Credit Point.
  3. Depending on how long your class sessions are, you can easily adapt and change the simulation to your needs.
    1. My broad structure is:
      1. I email character sheets out prior to meeting, urging them not to share their sheets with others.Class begins with a first initial meeting within the groups to establish who they are, what their country is doing, and what is feasible in terms of their own commitments to slow down climate change.As a group we collect in the interactive dashboard (see picture above) all of our countries/regions initial commitments, assessing by how much/if at all we were able to change the trajectory of climate warming.Then, the student groups briefly strategize, and then they disperse to speak to other groups to move the needle in any direction.
        1. Depending on how much time you have, you can do multiple negotiation rounds.
        After the negotiations, we collect again in the dashboard feasible commitments, and evaluate where we are.
      1. We debrief. This includes asking questions about how they felt getting the initial tasks, how the negotiations went, and discussing why it is difficult to make any global agreements on climate change.
  4. Thoughts on how the simulations have gone so far:
    1. The more time you can dedicate to it the better. I have played around with different structures anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 hours, and obviously, the longer session had better discussions/negotiations.
    1. In most cases, students will find that balancing national interests vs. global commitments is quite difficult. Countries tend to be selfish, and no one wants to make the biggest contributions right away. The debrief is key here, because it allows you to combine the students’ experiences with the readings and illustrate the thinking/obstacles that exist in global politics to overcome transnational problems.
    1. Take the time to walk around while the students are negotiating. They take it seriously, and the things they say to one another are both profound and amusing at times!

Basic Tools for Planning and Designing Classroom Games

Planning and designing classroom games doesn’t require boxes of custom Meeples, fancy boards, or a degree in graphic design. Rather, I recommend having the following stash on hand to help you think through your design:

  • Deck of playing cards: card decks are great! You can use suits to represent teams or events, use cards face down to represent a hidden and abstract map, or use cards as randomizers in the place of dice.
  • Dice: in addition to number generation, you can also use dice as markers with count numbers, using the face numbers (pips) to represent the number of turns left, the amount of resources a player has, and so on. I recommend having at least a dozen six-sided dice and one set of seven polyhedral dice (Fig 1).
  • Post-it Notes and index cards: create simple maps, organize a narrative storyboard, and re-create an abstract layout of your classroom so that you can visualize teams and movement.
  • Whiteboard and plain or graph paper: sketch your game. I recommend plain or graph paper since they encourage using the entire sheet and breaking lines.
  • Pennies: pennies are great as general-purpose markers! They’re versatile despite their size and also have some weight and feel substantial (tactile elements are essential, which I’ll cover in a later post).
Figure 1: Polyhedral Dice. Photo by Armando Are from Pexels

Let’s play together! Takeaways from five collaborative online simulations

This guest post is by Simon Fink at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Peter Bursens at the University of Antwerp, and Lars Harzem at Planpolitik!

Online simulations are an attractive tool for active learning because they allow student groups to collaborate over long distances, exploiting their diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. As students don’t need to be in one place, teachers can merge groups from different universities for a joint simulation experience. Having supervised five online simulations between the Universities of Antwerp and Göttingen using Planpolitk’s Senaryon platform, we report on some lessons we have learned.

Background

Using the platform Senaryon offered by Planpolitik, we performed a simulation of policymaking and lobbying in the sphere of EU environmental policy. The participants were approximately 40 students from Antwerp (Master of political science) and Göttingen (mostly BA of political science). While both programmes have an international student body by themselves, the joint online game further enhanced the international experience, involving intensive collaboration among students from all over the world.

The simulation is divided into two consecutive parts, with each part lasting one week. In the first week, half of the participants play members of different services of the European Commission. Their task is to draft measures to combat climate change through a decrease of CO2 emissions by cars. They start with vague tasks (develop overarching goals) and work towards concrete policy proposals. In doing this, they have to coordinate within the Commission, reconciling the interests of trade, industry, and climate services, while at the same time interacting with lobbyists representing green, consumer, and industrial interests.

The lobbyists are played by the other half of the participants. Their job is to also work from broad principles towards concrete policy advice, and try to communicate their positions to the Commission. Both sets of roles work in small teams, e.g. DG Environment, Greenpeace, Airlines for Europe, etc. The participants´ tasks are split up into small sub-tasks that are immediately commented on by the supervisors, so that participants can use concise, hands-on feedback to guide them through the next steps of the simulation.

All the interactions between the participants happen online, using joint text pads and a chat system, allowing us to staff all simulated teams with students from both Antwerp and Göttingen.

The final product of the first simulation week is a Commission proposal for legislation on climate change, taking into account the input by the lobbyists to underpin the legislation with facts and arguments, and support for the implementation.

In the second week, the legislative proposal proceeds to the next legislative phase in the European Parliament. At this point, participants switch roles: The former members of the Commission become lobbyists, while the former lobbyists now are Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), organised along political groups. The team logic also applies to the latter: if, for example, the European People’s Party has five MEPs in the simulation, this will be a mixed Göttingen-Antwerp group.

The participants’ job is similar to the first part of the simulation: The MEPs work on the legislative proposal, trying to turn their broad ideological backgrounds into concrete amendments; the lobbyists try to influence the MEP using good arguments. The outcome of the second week is a resolution of the EP, reflecting the amendments of the EP to the Commission proposal of the first stage of the game.

The simulation ends with an encompassing reflection essay, in which students reflect upon the outcome and what they have learned from the game.

What have we learned?

A couple of conclusions are clear. The online simulation is an excellent format for mixing student groups from different universities. Asynchronous communication between the participants is key: students need to devote sufficient time to monitor and digest posts from their colleagues, draft reactions and post contributions themselves. It is crucial to keep all participants active throughout the entire trajectory, ensuring collaboration within and across groups that embody the actors in the game.

While there have been critical comments by students on nearly all aspects of the simulation – students find the time pressure and the word limits for the tasks too restrictive – mixing groups was always the part of the simulation that the students liked. The tasks of the simulation force them to work together in small teams and divide up the work, e.g. one lobby team member doing the research, another team member reaching out to Commissioners, and a third member communicating with other lobby groups.

The asynchronous chat system supported this kind of work-sharing between Antwerp and Göttingen. Crucially, students were not in the same place, and they did not need to be “in the simulation” at the same time. Instead, typical conversations were “Have contacted Commissioner – now I need to go to class – can you make the follow-up? – I´ll be back at 4pm to work on the press release.” Due to the tight deadlines, we did not have the common problem that asynchronous online simulations are sometimes slow. Instead, the deadlines generate a fast-paced simulation. And due to the clear and small tasks the teams had to work on, we also had lively online discussions.

When instructions in the online platform are clear and precise, supervisors can take the back seat during the game and restrict themselves to troubleshooting and providing feedback on students’ input. 

It is important to acknowledge that students are used to working in online environments and on small tasks. If simulation instructions are given in small and intuitive chunks, the simulation is nearly running by itself. Students got clear deadlines, clear tasks, and an online environment in which everything was in one place. They could work from task to task, deadline to deadline, and get feedback from the instructors at fixed intervals (after completing the tasks). Senaryon includes a chat system to request supervisors’ help, but this was seldom used.

We also noticed that the usability of the system is paramount. The fact that students are used to working in online environments also implies that they have specific and outspoken ideas about how such an online environment should look: students’ expectations are formed by user experiences established by large-scale internet companies. This means that the look and feel of an online simulation needs to evolve along with these expectations. If not, there is a risk that students will “leave” the simulation environment and outsource their bilateral and informal interaction to other platforms. This would undermine one of the main benefits of the online simulation, which is that supervisors can monitor how students interact with each other within their teams. Students must have the impression that the communication tools within the platform are the most effective and pleasant way to coordinate. In this respect, quick and responsive technical support from Planpolitik in case of platform issues was very important.

In addition, offline instructions are vital for managing expectations. The online simulation is demanding: Students have tight deadlines, they have to work on complicated policy issues, and they have to coordinate team efforts over two universities. The two simulation weeks are demanding and stressful. Although the simulation itself is self-explanatory once it has started, good offline instructions before the start are vital to set the expectations. On top of a joint introductory session, including a recording, we therefore made sure to extensively brief our respective student groups about the learning objectives, the potential challenges (coordination within the groups, tight deadlines), the topic of the simulation, and the functioning of the platform.

Finally, the teaching staff responsible for the evaluation needs to have user-friendly access to all the content the students have submitted during the game. A valid evaluation of students’ performance, both in terms of skills and knowledge, cannot be done without a clear view of their input, including the conversations that led to positions, amendments, and policy proposals.

Have a post you want to share? Send it to alps@activelearningps.com!

“The Great Veggie Burger Debate”

Last week I conducted a simulation in my European Union Politics class, which is an upper-level undergraduate course with 18 students. The simulation is called “The Great Veggie Burger Debate”, building on the European Union’s 2019 Amendment 165, which proposed to ban the use of meat-related terms, such as “sausage” or “burgers”, for products such as “veggie burgers” or “veggie steaks” which did not contain any animal meat in them. In 2020, this Amendment was blocked by the European Parliament. In my simulation, the Amendment is back on the board, the European Parliament is leaning towards yes, and the Council of the European Union, meaning the body of nation-state ministers responsible for this policy area, has to vote on this issue (again).

This is my second time running this simulation, and I think it is a useful teaching tool to illustrate parts of the policy making cycle in the European Union and the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide interests in said cycle. This time around, though, I decided against really prepping my students for the simulation week. Luckily, I teach the class three times a week, and I utilized each of these days for concrete steps to have a fruitful conversation on the last day.

Advertising Agency: Ruf Lanz, Zurich, Switzerland

Monday:

At the top of the class I handed out the text of Amendment 165, putting into context its blocking in 2020, outlining key interest groups (environmentalists vs. farmers/agricultural workers), and providing a step-by-step guide on how to proceed. I briefly talked about the instructions, let me students chose which of the 27 countries they would like to represent (I only have 18 students, so I grouped some of the closer aligned countries together), and reminded them of qualified majority voting numbers (pass: 55% of countries, 65% of population; block: at least 4 countries, 35% of population).

My students spent the rest of the class (approx. 30mins) researching their country, looking specifically at the strength of interest groups, what sort of industries dominate, vegan/vegetarian populations, government statements, how their country had voted earlier, and whether their countries already had similar legislation on the books (i.e., France). I instructed them to have a 1-minute speech ready for the next class (no requirement for free speaking, bullet points encouraged).

Wednesday:

On the second day, each of my students positioned themselves/their country regarding the amendment. Some of them were well thought out; some not so much. But ultimately, we almost had a half and half situation of yeses and nos. I then allotted time for the groups to come together, think through their arguments, and approach the other group for conversations. We encountered an interesting situation, because the no-group, those pushing for a blocking of this amendment, realized quite quickly that they had the numbers to block it. Even though I tried to stir the pot a bit, the group stonewalled any attempts of my attempts to create disunion or attempts by the other group to converse. As a heads up for the third day, I instructed each group to determine a speaker to summarize their position at the top of the class. The yes-group spent the remainder of their class conducting research, strengthening their arguments for the last day. The no-group sat around, avoiding eye contact with me.

Friday:

On the last day, each group’s speaker summarized their position. The yes-group, as the “losing group”, had a well-prepared speech and more evidence. The no-group quite briefly just reiterated their stance and emphasized that they have the numbers to “win”. I positioned myself as a mediator, taking notes during the statements, and then invited my country representatives to engage in debate. It was interesting to see how well-formulated the yes-arguments were, touching upon citizen representation, consumer protection, and environmental concerns. The no-group, in the debate at least, did not have convincing arguments, disregarding any environmental concerns, and harping largely on the idea that consumers can distinguish between veggie burgers and real burgers and do not need more guidance. We voted after about 20minutes of issue debate. One no-student decided to switch his vote to the yest group, stating that their arguments were stronger. The vote, nonetheless, was moot, given the qualified majority voting rules and the strong hold the no-group had on a block of the bill.

A couple of thoughts:

  1. I do not think the lack of preparation prior to the presentation really affected the quality of the simulation. The students were “prepared” through 4 weeks of lectures/activities on the European history, institutions, and the way policymaking works in the European Union.
  2. Using an actual policy that has been debated and voted on was beneficial because it allowed students to immediately have research material readily available.  
  3. I made it a point to debrief after the simulation with concrete questions, allowing the students to reflect on their behaviors and positions. Here, we discussed the strength of arguments vs. qualified majority voting, the meaning of stonewalling on one vs. reiterative occasions with their fellow member-states, and most importantly the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide concerns in the Council of the European Union.
  4. It was interesting to see this immediate adopting of winner and loser mentalities. Some no-students later stated that the yes-group’s arguments were quite convincing, but they “didn’t want to lose”.

“Keep it Simple, and Plagiarize” (Classroom Games, that is!)

I likely just gave every academic a heart attack!

I’ll assuage your worries. The words are from legendary wargame designer Jim Dunnigan, author of Wargames Handbook. What he meant by those words was that first, use the minimum amount of game mechanics necessary to model your game’s objectives, and second, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to design games from scratch. I’ll discuss objectives further in a later post and focus on design “plagiarism” here.

Game mechanics are the rules that govern player behavior, such as card game hands, using dice to measure chance in a roleplaying game, or dribbling a basketball. Odds are someone’s already designed game mechanics that comes close to modeling your game’s objective. Even the first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, was born from tabletop wargaming mechanics. Instead of designing from a blank page, borrow mechanics from those other games. Indeed, since game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, you can often download game rulebooks for free directly from publishers.

What this means for you as an educator is that there’s a world of material out there that you can use, mix, and match for gaming your course learning objectives. For example, For my Fall 2019 Comparative Authoritarianism course, I borrowed mechanics from Risk and Pandemic to build a zombie apocalypse game that measured students’ knowledge of different regime types and their expected regime behaviors (assessing games will be another topic!).

Great, where do you learn game mechanics? The best way is to play games (or watch people play), and the second best way is to read rulebooks. I’m lucky that Fort Collins has two game stores where customers can borrow games in the store for free (and Gryphon Games & Comics also rents out games for a few dollars a day, which is nice when games such as Gloomhaven cost $150).

In the absence of a local game store, BoardGameGeek is a fantastic resource. PAXsims is also great for following the professional, training, and education gaming scene. If you want a handy mechanics reference, I recommend Engelstein and Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design (2022).

The holy grail for political science educators, however, is Gaming Political Science, hosted by the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. I imagine Dr. John Filter cloistered away like a gaming monk, gathering games published in the Journal of Political Science Education, International Studies Perspectives, Perspectives on Politics, and so on (I’ll do future posts on games in journals, let alone numerous other resources).

Neo-Colonialism Mini-Card Game UPDATED

Tim (left)

This guest post comes from Tim Ruback, University of Southern Maine.

To introduce neocolonialism and postcolonialism to students in my Intro IR Class, I created a mini-game, which can be run in a single class session. The purpose of the game is to get students to think about the ways that colonial and imperial histories still are relevant, especially when it comes to disparities of power and wealth. It also is meant to encourage them to ask questions about systems and institutions that seem, on the surface, to be fair and equitable — and to explore how systemic inequalities can be hidden within seemingly-neutral approaches to maintaining international order. You can find the complete game and its rules here

The game requires 4 or more visually-distinct decks of cards and a giant bag of candy (I used Jolly Ranchers). Each deck represents a different nation state, with the cards representing resources they have. The decks also reflect three different relationships to colonial power. One was a former imperial power. Two are newly-independent states, former colonies of the imperial power. One was neither.

At the start of class, I put the students into small groups, and invited each group to send a member to the front to select their deck of cards. Students expect each box to contain a full deck of cards. But they are not equivalent. Before class, I ‘stacked the decks’ by taking cards away from the former colonies, and putting them in the former empire’s deck. These cards represent the material wealth extracted during the colonial era.  

In brief, the card game takes us through decolonization and into the present day. The game has two phases, each with multiple rounds, reflecting the two eras. For each round, groups are given a task to complete. Typical tasks include reorganizing the deck, or putting together specific cards to form a hand. Successful completion of each task earns Jolly Ranchers (JRs). I tell them they want to earn as many as possible, but each group needs at least 25 (and should aspire to at least 100) JRs. Groups can trade cards for candy, or borrow candy from the World Bank (the instructor) in order to trade for the cards they need. Having the right cards is essential to earn JRs and win the game.

The first part of the game takes place during decolonization. The purpose of these rounds is to establish the ways in which colonial histories advantage some groups over others during the age of decolonization. In this part, students are told that they are preparing their economies so that they can compete in a global marketplace. The early rounds ask students to display all the jokers in their deck, or to organize their deck by suit, from low to high. The group with the former empire discovers that their deck is already organized. They also find they have extra jokers (and other cards), taken from other decks, which earns them additional JRs. The former colonies discover that their decks are disorganized, and important cards are missing. After the first rounds, the former empire has already won most of the candy they need and the former colonies have only a few candies each. 

Importantly, the extraction of cards happens before the game begins. The students with the imperial deck did not, themselves, take those resources from the other decks; they inherited those resources. Nevertheless, because these early rounds have lasting effects — including penalties and bonuses that carry over throughout the rest of the game — students witness how these early advantages pile up. They must reckon with the consequences of actions which took place before their time.

The last rounds in part I set up the remainder of the game. In these rounds, they’re given two hands of 3 cards each (such as: Red 4 + 6❤️ + J🔸) and are told these hands represent products they can export to the global market. Students earn JRs for each product they create. These initial products are designed with extracted cards so that the former empire can build multiple hands, and the former colonies cannot build all of them. Those who cannot build the products, but have some cards, can earn a lesser amount of Jolly Ranchers for raw materials. 

In part II, each round has the same basic gameplay: groups try to assemble as many products (specific 3 card hands) as possible. They earn candy for each product, and lesser amounts for raw materials. But there’s one big change! The instructor doesn’t dictate the hands that make up the products. That’s up to the groups. Initially, the group with the most Jolly Ranchers will decide which cards will create the round’s products. After that, the group that earns the most JR in the round determines the products for the next round. 

It should be immediately apparent to all that the former empire will be first to set the rules. This group has the opportunity to dictate conditions that will allow them to remain in that role. But soon, agreement is required to set the round’s product combinations. Initially, the group in charge needs to get one group to support their proposed products. Soon, a majority is needed. By the last rounds, products require consensus. 

Ultimately, the last rounds are more egalitarian than the first rounds were. But the advantage that the former empire had in the early rounds carries over, and the net result yields continued inequality — even when all groups are formally equal and consensus is required. 

AFTER THE GAME: DEBRIEF

In the complete game, I include a set of debrief questions which can get the conversation started. These questions start with practical observations about the game and its outcomes. Then they turn to prompts intended to help students develop explanations of why the game unfolded as it did. These include questions like:

  •  What did you discover when you first opened your deck?
  • There is a large disparity between the group with the most candy, and those with the least. How do we explain this?
  • Do groups that possess cards which were originally from another group’s deck have any obligations toward those other groups? Why or why not?
  • Is colonialism a thing of the past?

Here are some ideas that came up in my class debrief discussion:

  1. After consensus was required, the game became fairer. But outcomes were never equitable, primarily due to the extraction of resources prior to when the game began. This opened to a discussion of how closely global political economies need to mirror colonial systems in order to be deemed neo-colonial. Does continued extraction matter? Is perpetuating the gap enough? 
  2. In my class, the former empire became embarrassed about the piles of JRs they amassed. They offered some of their JRs to others. As we discussed this, we noticed:
    1. Every group refused to accept JRs from the former empire. When asked why, the answer was something like  “I don’t want their charity. They only have all those JRs, because they have our cards.”
    2. The former empire offered JRs, but did not offer to give back the cards that they inherited from colonial extraction. When asked why, reasons ranged from “We might need those,” to “It didn’t occur to me.” They didn’t feel responsible for having taken those cards.
    3. When I asked the former colonies if they would have been willing to buy back the cards that were taken from them, they refused. They thought that the cards already rightly belonged to them.
    4. I use the Edkins & Zehfuss Global Politics textbook, and this entire part of the discussion dovetailed with Naeem Inayatullah’s chapter. Discussions about knowledge, difference, and power came to the fore.
  3. The wealthiest group remained in power for the entire second half of the game. They never proposed rules that would have given others the chance to make the rules. They thought the safest thing was to remain in charge — even when consensus was required.
  4. Groups refused loans from the World Bank because of the conditions attached. They had to repay with interest. They were obliged to accept any “reasonable” offers to sell their cards for JRs; the World Bank would decide whether an offer was reasonable. Students’ arguments against these conditions mirrored their readings on underdevelopment.
  5. Overall, the students determined that the game seemed fair. They chose their own decks. The rules were equally applied. Once consensus was required, outcomes improved for the former colonies. But because of the stacked decks and the early rounds, the game systematically advantaged some groups over others. The consequences of colonialism remained with us.

Ultimately, students enjoyed the game, and were able to make strong connections between the gameplay and the important ideas from their readings. But the game can be improved. Please adapt it for your purposes. In the downloadable game, I offer advice about ways you can tailor the game to best meet your needs, such as how to adapt it for a larger class. If you try something that works well, please let me know!

UPDATE 08 Nov 2023. Powerpoint slides with round-by-round rules are now also available here