Category Archives: History/Government Games

Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Anger and Hope

Today we wrap up the four-part series from guest blogger Mary Gross. In this final entry, Mary describes a game in which students participate in strategic gambles that result in reallocation of resources represented by chips. While this game is intended for use in a history classroom, like all the games Mary has presented, the ideas here can be reimagined for a number of subjects. As we have seen, one does not need to “reinvent the wheel” for successful game-based learning; simply stripping down a game, identifying its core mechanics, and rebuilding its aesthetic layers with a narrative on top allows for adaption for many subjects. Thank you Mary for your examples of game-based learning in this series, not only to create historical empathy but also to encourage active learning and student reflection in any higher education classroom.

Reminder: Proposals for CUNY Games Conference 5.0 must be submitted by December 1st. Please plan accordingly if you would like to present a game demo or poster. Click here to learn more.


Anger and Hope
By Mary Gross

​In the fourth part of this series on the use of game mechanics to create historical empathy, we look at limited resource mechanics to create anger and resentment. It is often difficult for American students to empathize with people who resort to violence or terrorism in order to achieve an independent nation-state. Fundamentally, nationalist movements reject the idea of multiculturalism. This occurs most often because they have been oppressed by an empire which seeks to destroy them as a people with a separate identity. Assimilationist policies and structural oppression, ironically, tend to feed the desire of nations to remain separate, reinforcing the use of minority languages and other cultural distinctions.

​The use of limited resource mechanics can mimic the choices that imperial governments make about the allocation of power. This is more pronounced in imperial governments which have a large number of minority populations and face multiple nationalist movements. Giving benefits to one group causes resentment among others, but giving benefits to all creates instability and the complete loss of power. Such governments, if they wish to remain powerful, must walk a tight-rope, creating alliances and carefully doling out benefits so as to keep the system balanced.
​Students frequently misunderstand the actions of such governments. They see oppression or the withholding of benefits as evidence that governmental officials are mean or hate the minority populations. They also tend to view the aspirations of any minority group that engages in violence as bad, unless it is the American forefathers in 1776, in which case they are good. Engaging them in the true nature of the situations is more difficult.

​“Keeping the Empire When the Chips are Down” is a simulation of the Austrian Empire before the Ausgleich, the 1867 decision to create the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. At that time there were seven nations at various stages of national development within the Austrian Empire. They ranged from the powerful Hungarians, who had never lost their unique language and culture during the centuries under Austrian Rule to the Romanians living in Transylvania who had endured years of assimilationist polices and were only just developing a sense of identity in the wake of the 1848 revolutions. All seven had some desire to obtain the rights to use their own language in local government and in public schools. Most also wanted to have greater local government control. Because the Austrians made up a minority of the Empire’s population, they relied on the people of these nations for their army and economy. A successful revolt for one nation was likely to cause a cascade of revolutions. Each successful revolt would deprive Austria of much-needed resources. It was imperative that no revolts were successful.
​Students are divided into eight teams which vary according to the nations’ power and population. Austria, as the most powerful, has at least 5 members. Hungary has at least 3. If the number of students in the class is small, the Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, and Romanians may only have one person on the team, consistent with their lack of power within the empire.

​The Austrians are given a bag of 60 small chips. The winner is the nation with the most chips at the end of the game. The game ends 5 minutes before the end of the class period or when the Austrians no longer have any chips. The game is played in rounds. Each round begins with the Austrians having a short period to determine their collective goals. The representatives of the other nations are then allowed to negotiate privileges with the Austrians. They negotiate for use of local language in their government, the use of local languages in school, some autonomy in their local government, full autonomy in their local government, some autonomy in the national government, and full autonomy in the national government. Each privilege gains them a set amount of chips. Nations can also gain two chips if they agree to remain loyal to the Austrians when another nation revolts.

​Once the negotiation phase is over, nations can choose to revolt. If a nation decides to revolt, the chances of success are calculated. Each has a base percentage chance of succeeding based on population and resources. Hungary, due to its size and abundance of resources, has 50% base chance of success. Slovenia, because of its small population and only recently emerging sense of nationalism, has only a 10% base chance of success. The chance of success increases by 10% with every chip that the nation has and every successful revolt that has occurred. It decreases by 10% for every other nation that remains loyal to Austria. Once the chances are calculated, a representative from the nation roles a 10 sided die to see if the revolt has succeeded. If the revolt succeeds, Austria must give the nation 5 chips. If the revolt fails, the nation must give all of its chips back to Austria. The round is finished when all nations that want to revolt are given their chance.

​The chips represent the resource of power. The Austrians begin with all of the power and, because it is a limited resource, they must dole it out carefully. If they are too eager to give privileges to all nations, they will increase the likelihood of revolts. They must ensure that they have at least four nations that have committed to help them in revolts so that the chance of successful revolts is kept at a minimum. They also must deal with the power of the Hungarians. Some students have used the strategy of not negotiating with the Hungarians. Giving some privileges to the other nations and gaining support in the event of a revolt greatly lessens Hungary’s chances of success. Other students have offered a lot to Hungary in order to keep it loyal. These students tend to prefer not giving the less powerful nations like Slovenia any privileges at all.

​Austrians who decide to deal harshly or who are rude with their subject nations quickly find that the nations have nothing to lose by trying to revolt. I have seen games where the lowly Slovenes were sent away without chips. They stand to lose nothing if they revolt. If the other nations don’t support Austria in a Slovenian revolt, the Slovenes still stand a 10% chance of succeeding. Once one nation is successful, revolts become more common and more successful.
The limited resources force difficult decisions to be made. The Austrians must create a strategy in order to be successful. They cannot give out chips without considering carefully the benefits of doing so. This demonstrates the delicate diplomacy that is required to maintain an empire which has many nationalist movements within it. The nations must weigh the benefits of getting chips and the risk of losing them. Getting many chips early and waiting to revolt is a good strategy to maximize the number of chips received. Once they are sufficiently powerful, they can turn on Austria, and frequently do.

In addition to forcing decisions, limited resources create resentment and anger at the “unfair” way in which the Austrians make their decisions. They will be asked “why did that nation get more?” Resentment often leads nations to revolt even when the odds of success are limited. Although the nations cannot join forces in a revolt, they can agree not to support Austria. More astute students often determine which nation has the best chance of success and encourage that nation to revolt first, thus potentially increasing everyone else’s changes for success. The resentment frequently becomes palpable. There are cheers as revolts are successful and the Austrians often feel that they are the victims of the other nations. Resentment builds there to.

In the debrief, anger and resentment are heard in students’ comments. Charges of “that wasn’t fair” are frequently heard. “I was so mad when…” is also common. Students reflect later about how the Austrians weren’t in a great position and it was difficult for them to balance their power, but they are also quick to say that the Austrians could have done a better job both in the game and in reality to work with the nations so that their empire could have been stronger.


Are you interested in being featured on the CGN website? If so, submit a blog post on any topic related to GBL in higher ed., and/or send links/descriptions of your blogs to contactcunygames@gmail.com. Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week. 

Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Uncertainty and Anxiety

Today we return to Mary Gross’ four part series on games in higher education designed to encourage historical empathy. This third entry once again features a game involving chaos, but in a different sense than previously discussed.

Reminder: Proposals for CUNY Games Conference 5.0 must be submitted by December 1st.  Click here to learn more.


Part III: Uncertainty and Anxiety
By Mary Gross

As the third part of the series involving game mechanics which increase historical empathy, this blog looks at branching stories and progress meters to create uncertainty and anxiety among students.  Because of the linear and authoritarian way in which textbooks are written, it is easy for students to forget that while they know how the event will turn out, the participants do not. This leads to comments like “if they just would have waited a few years to act, the whole revolution would have been over.”  Pointing out the fallacy of this thinking doesn’t always lead students to rethink their reactions.

“Preventing the Second Revolution” is a game which puts students in the position of the Russian Provisional Government which lasted from March to October 1917.  Students compete in teams. The goal is to prevent triggering of a second revolution. They may also choose to construct a free and democratic government for the Russian people.  Projected onto the screen are thermometers, one for each team. Each team has a stack of cards placed in front of them. Each card contains a situation and two possible decisions that could be taken and represents a round in the game.  Next to each decision is a number of “chaos points” which increase or decrease the “temperature” on their team’s thermometer. If their decisions result in a total of more than 150 chaos points, the second revolution is triggered.

The game is played in rounds.  Each round begins with the top card being flipped and read.  The decision is made and the resulting chaos points are added or subtracted from the thermometers.  The situations on the cards are actual situations faced by the Provisional Government. For example, they must decide what they will do with Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  The cards have dates on them corresponding to the approximate date on which the Provisional Government faced the situation and made a decision. This allows students to keep track of the passage of time.

The choices create a branching story line, although this is not readily apparent.  In the first round, the choice seems obvious. The workers in St. Petersburg have created a political organization to represent the will of the workers.  They called this organization a Soviet. The St. Petersburg Soviet was initially willing to work with the Provisional Government as long as the government treated the workers fairly.  The Soviet movement is recognized as potentially radical. Students must decide whether to work with the Soviet or to use the army to crush it. The choice to work with the Soviet does not give the team any chaos points.  Crushing the movement with the army adds chaos points to the team’s thermometer. Most students, will choose not to crush the movement.

The third round card reveals that earlier choices impact the chaos points of later decisions.  This decision is whether to give the workers an eight hour work day. Choosing to create an eight hour work day results in five chaos points because the factory owners would be upset and more likely to oppose the government.  Not creating the eight hour work day results in ten chaos points because the workers would be upset and there are more workers than there are factory owners. However, if the Provisional Government had sent in the army to crush the Soviets in the first round, the number of chaos points is 20 because the workers, already upset at the crushing of the Soviets, will feel even more disappointment in not gaining a maximum work day.  They are now much more likely to oppose the Provisional Government in subsequent rounds.

Once the nature of the branching story reveals itself, students try to predict how a decision in the present round will affect future decisions.  Their natural tendency in the beginning is to try to be nice to the people and provide them with freedom. Hence, they free political prisoners, refuse to kill Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and give the people freedom of assembly.  These measures, however, make it increasingly difficult to maintain peace and civility because, after years of oppression, the Russian people wanted freedom and were certain that the new government could and would provide it.

The branching story also allows deeper contemplation of what seem to be hopeless or inconsequential decisions.  In round five, for example, students must decide whether to break up the large estates and give peasants the land or retain the large estates.  Both decisions result in 15 chaos points being added to the thermometer. Giving the peasants land will anger the wealthy landowners who will then oppose the government.  Maintaining the large estates will anger the peasants who will then oppose the government. Since either decision will result in the same negative consequence, the students must try to predict what the overall effect of the decision must be.

The use of the metered progress mechanic influences the way in which students contemplate their decisions.  Early on, they make their choices in the long term, considering what their ultimate goal will be and how best to achieve it.  Two general strategies evolve among teams early in the game. Teams will decide to be dictatorial, thereby forgoing the objective of creating a free and democratic government.  Others choose to create the democratic government. There are some teams who don’t choose a strategy, but this is less common.

As the rounds continue and the thermometers fill up, decisions begin to be made only in the short term.  They make the decision which entails the fewest chaos points being added to the thermometer. The closer the thermometer gets to 150, the more likely they are to make any decision which keeps them in power and allows them to get to the next round.  As their anxiety increases, the more short term their thinking becomes.

The change in the decision making from long to short term is not a bug.  It is a feature. It is common for those in power, faced with uncertainty and the anxiety it causes, to consider only the short term.  This leads them to make decisions that seem illogical or ill-considered. Reading a textbook account leads students to judge the decisions as “stupid.”  When, however, they read the account of Russia’s Provisional Government after playing the game, they are more likely to argue that the fall of the Provisional Government was the result of poor options rather than poor decisions.  

The game reveals that the only way to prevent the second revolution was to create another authoritarian regime.  Those high minded students who try to create a free and democratic government find their efforts rewarded by an increasingly protest minded populace led by the very people who the government freed from prison and allowed to return from exile.  Thus was the plight of the Provisional Government. Instead of seeing the leaders as vacillating and weak, students feel sorry for them and recognize the realities faced by leaders who come to power after revolutions. This goes beyond the cognitive skill of recognizing the perspective, adding the affective skill of actually feeling, if even as a pale shadow, the uncertainty and anxiety that good people face in chaotic and developing situations.  


Are you interested in being featured on the CGN website? If so, submit a blog post on any topic related to GBL in higher ed., and/or send links/descriptions of your blogs to contactcunygames@gmail.com. Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week. 

Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Distrust and Greed

This week, we continue our four-part series from guest blogger Mary Gross, Associate Professor of History at Marian University of Wisconsin (click here to read her first entry). Mary’s second post explores how the mechanic of hidden information can lead to distrust and greed among players learning about market bubbles, Group Threat Theory, and Scapegoat Theory. It is important to note that Mary’s games each include a debrief; in educational settings a game can be useful on its own, but is almost always more effective when a debrief/discussion of players’ experience accompanies it.

REMINDER: Proposals for The CUNY Games Conference 5.0 must be submitted by Nov. 10th, 2018 for consideration. To learn more, click here. 


Part II: Distrust and Greed
by Mary Gross

In the previous blog, I wrote about the foundational ideas of using games to increase students’ historical empathy skills.  Rolling dice and instant death mechanics increased student awareness of why soldiers during World War I often wrote in fatalistic terms and why they were so devoted to other soldiers.  This blog will explore the use of varying values, trade, and hidden information to help students make sense of communities devolving into dysfunction as the result of greed and distrust.

When reading about the 1920s economy which culminated in the stock market crash of 1929, students are often dismayed.  They think, “People were stupid.” They didn’t realize that what goes up always comes down. Discussing the 2008 market crash doesn’t help them develop empathy because they were in grade school and didn’t have stocks.  To them, 2008 is only slightly less distant than 1929. To help them gain empathy with the people who created the conditions of market bubbles, I created the “Don’t Lose Your Marbles” game.

At the beginning of the game, each student receives a bag which contains an identical amount of fake money and a set amount of marbles.  They are told that the goal of the game is to have the most assets (value of marbles plus cash on hand) and to obtain the assets through the buying and selling of marbles.  They are told that prettier marbles are worth more money than ugly marbles. No other measure of value is given.

The ambiguity of the situation leads to some awkwardness in the beginning, but soon students are actively bargaining.  The more entrepreneurial among them make dramatic statements about the rare beauty of the humblest marbles in an attempt to get a better price.  As play continues, the amounts of money paid increases as does the energy in the room. After about 15 minutes, I announce that no marble is worth more than $20, thus crashing the market.  Students are then allowed 5-10 more minutes to trade.

The game relies on hidden information, the value of the marbles, as its core mechanic and for its emotional punch.  They are given only a few hints regarding the true information. One is valid, in creating my chart of marble values, I used my measure of “pretty” to determine the values.  The other is invalid. The money they are given ranges from $10,000 bills to $1 bills. This gives the illusion that the marbles must be worth a lot of money, thus leading them to falsely believe, as many people do, that value is based partially on the amount of money one has to spend on it.

In the debrief, it is not uncommon to learn that some students paid $15,000 or more for a marble.  They are quite upset when the market falls. The more economically savvy students sell their marbles and keep the cash.  Some marbles, usually the shooters, have been bought and sold multiple times, with the market price increasing with each sale, again mimicking behaviors seen in many market bubbles.  During the debrief, students speak with pride or shame about their actions. “How could I have been so stupid” is an irrational but very common statement, allowing for the lesson to be driven home.  Market bubbles lead people to act on greed and hope, emotions that often create decisions which people regret.

Another game “The Tragedy of the Hat” involves a different form of hidden information.  The winner at the end of the game is the person who has the most number of magic points.  As a simulation of the Tragedy of the Commons, students are told that I have a magic hat (a Pilgrim type hat I bought for a Thanksgiving decoration).  The hat is magic, but the magic is limited. If everyone uses their fair share of the magic, everyone benefits. If a few people use more than their fair share, they will prosper.  If too many people use more than their fair share, the hat’s magic will be lost. The total amount of magic in the hat is revealed and students may choose how much of the magic to use in each round.

The game is played in five rounds.  At the beginning of the first round, each student has five points of magic, which can be put in the magic hat.   In each round, students are allowed to talk among themselves and determine collectively how many magic points they will put in the hat.  After they are allowed to talk things over, each student secretly writes down a number between zero and five on a slip of paper and places it in the hat.    The directions clearly state that agreements of the whole are not binding. Students are free to write down as many or as few points as they want and no one, other than the professor, will know how many points they actually put in the hat.

I total up the number of points students have put in the hat and announce only the total.  No student knows what any other student wrote down. If the total is below the total magic in the hat (predetermined based on the number of students), students double the amount of points they put in the hat.  If the total of the points in the hat exceeds the magic of the hat by between one and five points, students lose half of the points they put in the hat. If the total points added to the hat exceeds the magic of the hat by more than five points, the hat is broken and students lose all of the points they put in.  They then begin the next round.

The announcement of the total number of points put in the hat reveals only if some students have not stuck to the agreement.  The conversations in subsequent rounds are dominated by growing distrust and blame. I often have to step in to stop students from blaming one or two students, explaining that they don’t know who is putting how many points in the hat.  Those who have violated community agreements are frequently the most vocal in blaming innocent students. Their reactions demonstrate engagement and emotional investment in the game. Sometimes students will demand that everyone show the slips of paper on which each student writes the number of points he or she will put in the hat.  Significant social force is placed on all students in this case. In other classes, trust completely breaks down and there are no negotiations in the later rounds. Students display frustration and an eagerness for the game to be over.

Because tensions tend to rise quite high in the game, a careful debrief is important.  It is important that the information about who put in how many points is never revealed.  The feelings of distrust are discussed carefully as are the ways in which people reacted to their feelings.  The debrief offers the opportunity to discuss Group Threat Theory and Scapegoat Theory as common ways in which community spirit can be broken down and how innocent people can easily be targeted by a group.  Students who have been frustrated or disappointed are allowed to process those emotions. The debrief concludes with actual Tragedy of the Commons experiences which allow students to see the complexity and humanity involved in individual decisions.

In both games, there is a finite resource.  There are only so many marbles, so much money, and a set amount of magic in the hat.  Variations come about as students try to maximize their own outcomes. Greed becomes a factor in both games.  The uncertainty regarding the hidden information allows students’ greed to take over. The energy that is generated as students pursue their own goals, even as they try to work as a community, is palpable to all.

In life, hidden or unknown information is common.  Any investment in the stock market, any purchase, any use of a public resource entails a balance of risk and reward.  Greed often leads to negative outcomes for communities even as the greedy are rewarded. “That’s not fair” is the most frequent comment heard during the debrief.  This allows for the discussion of historical market bubbles and misuse of community resources. Although it is never possible to tell if students take use of these lessons into their own lives, their papers and exams reflect a deeper understanding of why people in the past have chosen to make seemingly irrational decisions which caused harm to themselves or others.


Are you interested in being featured on the CGN website? If so, submit a blog post on any topic related to GBL in higher ed., and/or send links/descriptions of your blogs to contactcunygames@gmail.com. Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week.