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.

Mission U.S.: Teaching History through Games

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the first annual CUNY Games Festival in New York.  The conference brought together academics and game designers to discuss means and methods of using games in higher education.  For me it was certainly a ‘these are my people!’ gathering and while I enjoyed presenting my own work (on my interdisciplinary World of Warcraft course), the highlight was learning about a variety of games that are available and useful for the college classroom.  Ill be posting about many of them in the coming weeks.

The first is Mission U.S, a series of free online games aimed at teaching American history to 5th-8th graders.    Designed by historians, each of the three games casts you as a fictional character at a crucial time in history–as a printmaking apprentice on the eve of the American Revolution in Boston; as a young slave in 1848, or as a Northern Cheyenne boy in 1866. They are all essentially single-player role playing games.  The major events are set (you cannot, for example, prevent the Boston Massacre) but you are free to take sides and actions as you choose.  For example, in the first Mission, you can choose your words or actions to support the Sons of Liberty, or to remain loyal to the British.

The games are most appropriate for history courses, but could also certainly be used as an out-of-class assignment to inform introductory or niche courses in American Politics.  For example, I always start my introduction to American Politics course with the historical background preceding the Revolution and the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The first mission could either substitute or complement that lecture, and really set the stage for students to understand the complaints of the colonists and how their experiences informed the writing of those documents.

I also quite enjoyed the gameplay.  Despite the pitch at a younger audience, the games would work quite well for the college crowd.  The interface is easy to use; the gameplay fairly simple but filled with interesting choices that impact the game (the path you choose does matter in terms of options available to you later); and the graphics pleasing.  The games are divided into chapters, which makes it easy to assign concrete chunks to students, and you are free to save the game at any time.  The creators also made educational guides for instructors available, which include lesson plans, learning goals, how-to guides, and cheat sheets.

Again, this is a niche game, and political science professors may find more value in playing it for their own interest and refresher than as an assignment to students.  It may be something to pass on to your colleagues in history–but it also may prove useful in various American Government courses.

Scales of Injustice

ScalabilitySimon Fink discussed the scalability of an EU simulation in terms of its duration. I’m running into a scale problem in terms the number of participants. For the second year in a row, I’m using Statecraft in an introductory international relations course. Last year I had thirty-four students; this year I have only thirteen. The buzz of activity in this year’s classroom is noticeably less than it was last year; however, last year it was obvious that, with teams of five or six students, often one or two students weren’t very engaged in the proceedings. I have seen this passivity happen in other simulations as well.

This suggests that, absent highly-structured roles for individual team members and a clear system of individually-based rewards and penalties, many simulations probably have a sweet spot for group size — perhaps three students per team. If one student is absent, then there are still two others present to collaborate. If all three are present, the group is still small enough for everyone to want to participate and for no one to be able to hide.

Unfortunately I find it extremely inconvenient to wait until I have a firm idea of class size before deciding whether to use a particular simulation. I also don’t want to build a syllabus around a few simulations and then have to discard them when enrollment goes up or down. This makes a simulation’s scalability in terms of number of participants very important to me.

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

The Redistricting Game

This one is so well known that I was surprised when I realized that we had yet to feature it.  The Redistricting Game (at is a great online tool for learning about districts, redistricting, and gerrymandering.  Players work on behalf of one of the political parties and are tasked with redrawing district lines on several different missions, from simply making population size equal and districts compact and contiguous to partisan gerrymandering or ensuring minority representation.  The gameplay is a map with small dots representing the people according to their party affiliation and ethnicity, and cities are noted with little house icons and high population density (i.e., lots of dots). As you redraw the lines, elected officials give you feedback through their animated expressions as well as written comments–happy if their reelection is ensured, concerned if the divide is a toss up between parties, and outraged if their district will flip to the other party.  Once you meet the mission’s objectives, you submit the plan for a vote and eventually the Governor’s signature.

Its a great game to assign students either before or after learning about redistricting.  It takes what can be a bit dry of a lesson–the rules and regulations of district sizes and shapes–and makes it concrete and active.  Its also quite user-friendly and is entirely free.  As a supplement to traditional class readings and lectures, it works really well in teaching the basics of the subject and you may find that students will play it for far longer than assigned.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.


You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.

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, Pt. 2: 3rd World Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty Games Pt. 1: Ayiti The Cost of Life

Poverty Games Pt. 3: Free Rice

Poverty Games Pt. 4: Spent

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