Neo-Colonialism Mini-Card Game

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. 


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!

Is my class going to work?

Not the target audience

I’m in the unusual position of getting some feedback from students on some teaching that will be happening at the end of this year.

Our distance-learning model means we build our resources a long way in advance, so we have the opportunity to get some road-testing of new elements beforehand, through a scheme run by the university.

In this case, that meant inviting a bunch of undergrads to try out the asynchronous negotiation exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of years for our new Masters in IR.

Sadly, only a handful of those invites turned into feedback. While all positive, it does still make me wonder whether it’ll work in practice when our students get to it shortly before Christmas.

And it raises the more general question of how we can do this for people in more regular settings: typically, we only find out if our class is going to work when we deliver it.

With that in mind, there are several things we might do to improve the chances of that happening.

Firstly, we can follow good design principles. That means using our generic knowledge about course design to create something new. Having clear learning objectives and ensuring alignment between these, the activity and any assessment is the obvious go-to, but we might also consider what we know about how students behave and about the impact of the various constraints we operate under.

Oddly, this can be harder to remember to do when we have a ‘standard’ session than when we try for something more original or innovative. A lecture might not break any new ground in its delivery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that sucks: you have to work on being clear about your purpose and how you’re using your time to achieve that.

If we follow the insights that basic pedagogy teaches us, then we are already much more likely to hit our goals.

Second up, we can talk it through. Teaching isn’t a heroic struggle, where one woman/man does it all on their own, but a collective endeavour: we help each other to help students learn.

In all the major simulation activities I have built, I have also sought the advice and input of colleagues, both within my institution and beyond it. Their ideas and comments have been a major asset and opened up a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, certainly not before trying things out with my students.

There’s really no downside in sharing your teaching practice: you get useful input, they get a warm glow of being helpful (plus someone they can ask for advice in return), you all get a stronger community of practice. So if you don’t do it already, try it.

Finally, we can wargame it. This is really only necessary for major projects, where the costs of failure are relatively high.

Basically, you become the most pessimistic person you can think to be and ask for each step of your activity ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’, and then think about ways to avoid, minimise and address those things.

You used to do this when you started out teaching and asked yourself ‘what if they ask a question?’: like that, but with the confidence in your abilities that has developed through practice. [Which possibly leads you to ask ‘what if they don’t ask any questions?’, but hey].

Sitting down and working through all the worst-case scenarios is helpful for the same reason as the previous idea: it takes things out of you and places you in someone else’s shoes. Here, you’re actively empathising with the student.

If you want a single take home on this, then it’s that the more you think about how things might (not) work, the more likely it is that they will work when needed. Failure to prepare leads to preparing for failure, and all that.

Key Features of Effective Games for Teaching

This week we had the pleasure of welcoming Sebastian Bae to our campus. Sebastian is a wargame designer and research analyst for CNA, and also teaches a course on wargame design at Georgetown. Amongst other events during his visit, he gave a talk called The Educator’s Toolkit: Learning to Use Wargames, and I want to highlight one of the key contributions of this talk: the six elements of good educational games. While Sebastian was focusing on e war-games, this advice applies to any educational gaming, inc. in politics and government.

The six criteria are:

Let’s dig into these.

Continue reading “Key Features of Effective Games for Teaching”

Climate Defense Game

Credit for this goes to the economist Richard Thaler, who mentioned the game’s basic premise in a Freakonomics Radio podcast.

I created this game for an admissions office event designed to persuade admitted applicants — high school students — to enroll. There were eight participants in the room. I placed a folded paper placard with the name of a country on it in front of each participant. The countries had varying GDP levels; e.g., El Salvador and China. I used poker chips instead of real money. I introduced the game by asking the group if they thought it was important for all countries to work toward mitigating climate change; everyone agreed. I then announced that we would simulate an international fund for climate defense. Countries could contribute to the fund that would be used to slow climate change and benefit everyone.

The game unfolds in three phases. Since my time was limited to about 35 minutes, I did two rounds for each phase. Probably more rounds per phase would work better. Here are the game’s rules:

Phase 1: Each player begins the game with 5 chips. For each round, a player can contribute 0 to 5 chips to the fund. At the end of the round, the number of chips in the fund doubles and this amount is divided equally among all players.

Phase 2: Players retain any chips acquired in Phase 1. Rules from Phase 1 still apply, plus: You can spend 1 chip to penalize another country. The country that is penalized loses 2 chips. To do this, write the name of the country on a piece of paper and give it to me along with 1 of your chips.

Phase 3: Each player starts with an amount of chips that reflects his or her country’s GDP. All other rules from Phases 1 and 2 still apply.

After six rounds, I led a short discussion, and it was evident that the high school students had picked up on the collective action problem that exists in the provision of international public goods.

How to debrief a simulation

Being able to see what’s happening in your session is probably also important

One of the topics that popped up at various points at TLC and ISA was the question of debriefing.

Everyone who does active learning and sims work agrees it’s important and there was lots of head-nodding whenever it was mentioned. Yes, it’s essential for reconnecting students’ learning within the activity back into their wider understanding and development, so why wouldn’t you agree?

However, at neither conference did anyone really get into what happens in a debrief.

Part of me nearly jumped straight into ‘I’ll write a blog’ mode, but then sensible me rocked up to say ‘maybe check to see if anyone’s already written something about this first’, which is good advice. Well done, sensible me.

And there’s loads of stuff. Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “How to debrief a simulation”

Really? Actually really?


Some more time to digest the lessons of Baltimore’s TLC, and I’m coming back once again to a big theme (for me) about how we use simulations and games.

At several points during the conference, I found myself pondering how we reconnect sims and games back into the rest of our teaching practice, or even whether we do that at all.

The argument I’d make (and I made) is that sims are essentialisations of the world: they take some aspect – an event, a relationship, a dynamic – and places it front and centre, stripped of all the other stuff so we can see it more clearly for our edification.

That essentialisation gives us the core of the gameplay of the sim. The mechanism we want to focus on logically also informs the choice of how we focus on it. So if we want to understand voting dynamics, we build a sim with voting in it, plus whatever elements we want students to consider as factors.

None of this should be controversial – it’s how all teaching works, in practice. We draw attention to something, to allow us to think about, discuss and learn about it.

Sims are just a more overt example of this.

But that essentialisation also implies a need to have an active reconnection, post-activity.

It’s why we talk so much about debriefing: we are trying to draw lessons out of the activity, back into the other modes of teaching we use, both within a course and more generally.

By definition, active learning places the locus of learning within the student, so to know what they have learnt, we (as teachers/instructors/facilitators) have to work to pull that out of them.

But what does that involve?

Typically, when we talk about debrief we are looking at ‘what did you learn?’ type questions. Asking students to vocalise their understandings and experiences in a more-or-less structured manner.

Obviously here, we can cover all the usual bases of substantive knowledge, practical skills and broader socialisation into communities.

However, the whole essentialisation process means we also need to ask a different type of question too: ‘how did this experience match up to the actual thing you’re studying?’

One of the first papers I wrote on sims was about realism and the ways we can make our sims versimilitudinous [sp?], but sims are always approximations to reality and we need students to be both aware of and thoughtful about this.

In essentialising, we strip away ‘the other stuff’ because it’s not that important to our objective. But ‘not that important’ doesn’t mean ‘unimportant’.

So part of our debriefing needs to ask students whether and how the simplifications of the sim distort our understanding of what matters. To go back to that voting dynamics exercise I mentioned earlier, if we exclude a particular element, do students now think that element isn’t relevant?

One way I’ve tried to explore this is being asking students to come up with ways they could make the sim work in a more realistic manner: and often I’ll use that the next time out. This process invites either constructive additions or thoughtful reflection about why something can’t be included (and the impact thereof).

None of this is to say that sims aren’t any good; only that they are imperfect tools (like all pedagogies) and so we have to ensure that students recognise and reflect on that.

The persistent gap in simulation design literature

About eight years ago, I wrote the following:

….there remains a severe lack of basic ‘how-to’ guides (whether grounded in higher pedagogic theory or not); instead, the typical process of spreading use of simulations is by word of mouth and the adaptation of existing models to new situations. 

I was arguing that while there was a metric tonne of individual case studies of the ‘show and tell’ type and another pile of more theoretical musings on the nature and purpose of simulation games, there was a gap in-between.

The theory pieces were great for that paragraph at the top of your paper for justifying ‘why simulations’ but didn’t tell you how to go about actually doing one, while the ‘show and tell’ stuff sometimes gave you enough to re-run that particular sim, that sim was never quite what you needed.

No tools, no easy way forward.

All of this came flooding back during TLC in Baltimore this last weekend, with many of the colleagues on the track talking about starting out on their sim-building journey and looking for help.

Even I, with a pretty healthy dose of experience, found that when I was designing an online, asynchronous sim, there was basically nothing at all that worked through the options and mechanics. If you read my paper, you’ll see that much of it ended up being a working from first principles.

This persistence of a lack of operational literature is frustrating.

It’s also quite understandable, in that there aren’t that many people who are bothered enough not just to build their own sim, but also to abstract from that out to general design and implementation principles.

And yes, before you ask, I did write various things, gathered here. But that’s not really enough.

Maybe you need something like Classroom Assessment Techniques, the classic handbook from Cross, or maybe you need something else more dynamically and interactively built online, but as long as we lack these kinds of resources then we’re doomed to lots of people spending lots of time they don’t need to, reinventing wheels that have been reinvented many, many times before or – and worse -just giving up because it’s too tough.

As usual with such thoughts, while I can identify the problem, I can’t offer a easy solution.

Maybe you can, in which case I’d love to hear from you. As would many others.

A small communication/adaptability exercise

Some Lego, recently. And yes, I do know the worktop needs varnishing again

My neighbour (and fomer colleague) Roberta came by the other day to borrow my Lego. I’d love to say this kind of thing happens regularly, but it really doesn’t.

She had recalled an activity I’d done with various groups some years ago, to teach them about the importance of communication

The game is super simple (if you (or a neighbour) have the Lego to hand and involves trying to recreate a model, albeit with some restrictions.

Full details here.

For me, the value of the exercise is about getting students to think some more about how well they prepare for activities and how well they can make running adjustments should things turn out to be quite so simple as they thought. Which is of – hopefully – general application, not just for classrooms.

It’s also a nice ice-breaker, especially if you have multiple teams up against each other.

As I say, this isn’t a new exercise, but somehow I never really wrote it up fully. Perhaps I need to go back through my playbook and check there aren’t other things I could be sharing with you.

But do remember, you’ll have to wait for Roberta to return the Lego before you can ask for it.