Category Archives: Social Science Games

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 Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week. 

Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Tension and Fear

This week, we feature the first entry in a four-part series by guest blogger Mary Gross, Associate Professor of History at Marian University of Wisconsin, who has been designing games for history, political science, sociology, and first year studies courses for more than 20 years. Her post begins with an introduction to the series, followed by an entry on a game featuring the mechanics of instant death and dice rolling.

Bio: Mary holds a BA from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in Urban and Public Affairs, MA in History from Texas A&M, Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina, and a Masters Certificate in Game Design from Michigan State University. She teaches a wide variety of courses including introductory courses in Sociology and American Government, World History survey courses, upper level European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern courses, and special topic courses including the History of Sex, History of Terrorism, History of Disease.  More recently, she began teaching courses in Game Design.

By Mary Gross

In the past few decades, innovations in primary and secondary history education have focused on analytical skills including critical reading of primary source documents, analysis of change over time, and the development of arguments based on historical evidence. Sam Wineberg and others have challenged history educators to go beyond teaching facts and begin teaching the thinking skills regularly employed by historians. Not only are students able to learn some of these skills, learning the skills is likely to increase student interest in history.

The problem is developing activities which allow students to fully engage with a topic that can seem abstract and is, in reality, distant from them in both time and space.  My students are not likely to take part in revolutions. With any luck, they will not fight wars or live through famines. Many will never travel widely and it is highly unlikely that any will travel back in time.  Fostering a connection between twenty-first century students and historical people and events demands that teachers and professors develop activities that lead students to become emotionally involved with the past, a skill referred to as historical empathy.  

The term historical empathy has been described in a variety of ways.  Some writers have focused on the cognitive skills commonly referred to as perspective taking or contextualization.  Others have seen it as an affective response, understanding the actions or beliefs of another by feeling the same emotions.  Still others have combined the two, referred to as a Cognitive-Affective Spiral in which the cognitive creates a spark of interest which leads to more study.  With greater study, affective experiences help maintain the interest and lead to understanding of the complexity which deepens the cognitive understanding, allowing a cycle to begin.

Regardless of the definition of historical empathy, this skill is worth fostering among students.  Empathy for people in the past is easily transferred to people in the present. Games, because of their immersive qualities and the intrinsic motivation they encourage are an excellent way to foster historical empathy.  This four part series will focus on mechanics which facilitate the development of historical empathy. It is hoped that the series will help educational game designers create games which intentionally develop this important skill

Part I: Tension and Fear
By Mary Gross

Even in a sanitized textbook, the horrors of World War I are apparent.  Students are quick to see the futility of trench warfare on the Western Front.  In discussions, students argue that they would have refused to get out of the trenches and fight.  As a result, they see the soldiers as pitiful pawns or ignorant automatons. Allowing them to experience a shallow sense of the fear and sheer randomness of life in the trenches changes their views of the soldiers who faced the full experience.

“Over the Top” is a simple game played on a PowerPoint board, projected on to a screen.  Students are lined up in random order and ordered into the board’s No Man’s Land. Each step forward requires them to roll a 100 sided die.  If they roll a 1-4, they receive a chest wound and remain in No Man’s Land. A roll of 50-53 results in a leg wound, also stranding them in the field of battle.  A 98-100 results in instant death. The odds are consistent with injury and death rates in the first days of the Battle of the Somme. Students in the second and third ranks, must move forward and roll the dice as they replace their fallen comrades.  Just as they reach the barbed wire on the far end of the battlefield, retreat is called, and they can roll the dice and try to get back to the trench safely. Once all of the able bodied students are safe back in the trench, they can go back out to No Man’s Land and save a friend, rolling again to get to the friend and then to return to the trench.  The game continues until all of the wounded are returned to the trench, all of the students are wounded or killed, or those in the trench decide to remain safe and not rescue any more of their comrades. After the game, students write a reflection on how they felt rolling the dice or their decision whether to rescue fallen comrades.

The mechanics are simple.  Roll and move. Students’ reactions are more complex.  Students write about a feeling of dread as they pick up the dice and the relief they feel when they are “safe.”  They express their anger and frustration at being shot and having to wait to see if they would survive. Some lucky few are far enough back in the ranks that they don’t ever have to roll the dice.  Some are thankful. Others wanted their chance to face the results.

The call of retreat brings about shouts of “I was almost there!” and “Thank God!”  Regarding the choice to rescue a friend, elicits similar complex emotions.

Students wrote about how they know that their friend would have rescued them and that soldiers are like family members.  They can’t be left behind. Some students steadfastly refuse to rescue others. They reflect on their decision in interesting ways.   One student wrote, “I wasn’t going to rescue anyone. They were calling for me to rescue them, but I thought, ‘I don’t care. I’m not going to die out there.’”

They do not, of course, ever face any actual harm, but emotions run high every time the die is picked up.  Dice rolling is an activity which seems to create drama and so it is particularly useful to create tension and fear.  It is, in effect, casting your lot to the winds of fate. But dice rolling also acts in engaging students in “magical thinking” that their hand or the way in which they shake the dice can, somehow, influence what happens.  This adds to the perception of agency and control. Because they feel agency in the rolling of the dice, they also feel somewhat responsible for the outcomes. All of this heightens tensions in a way that having someone else roll the dice would not.  Dice rolling also involves a period of uncertainty between when the dice leaves the hands and when it comes to a stop. This makes dice rolling more dramatic than flipping a card. The possibility of cocked dice or dice tumbling off the table increases the tension even further as this requires the whole dice rolling process to be completed again.

Including the mechanic of instant death amplifies the tension inherent in dice rolling.  With each roll, the student can be out of the game, sent off to the left side of the room which, for the purposes of the game, is called the afterworld.  They then watch as play continues. Because of the agency they felt in rolling the die, they often feel disappointed and express frustration with the unfairness of the game.

Normally, a game that involves only luck would not be appropriate for learning, but in the case of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I, survival was often a matter of pure luck.  It induced in soldiers a feeling of fatalism and frustration, but also an intense devotion to the others soldiers. Having played the game, students are able to better understand the fatalistic tone often found in the soldiers’ poems, prose, and letters home.  

In their reflections and the conversation after the game students demonstrated their understanding that the feelings of tension and fear they experienced were similar in type, if not in scope, to what the World War I soldiers must have felt.  Even knowing that they were all still going to be alive at the end of the game did not prevent them from worrying as they waited their turn to roll the dice.

The world is full of randomness and history provides many of examples in which this mimics many experiences people have experienced in the past.  Every ship that ventured into the sea stood a chance of failure. Every battle ever fought contained random elements. Histories of entire nations were dramatically altered by unimaginably random events such as Henry II of France who, while jousting, had a lance hit his helmet.  It broke apart and one splinter went into his eye with such force that it penetrated his brain, killing him. His wife, Catherine de Medici, then ruled as regent while her three unlucky and/or sickly sons each took the crown in turn.

Textbooks tend to present history as a simple linear narrative, free of other possibilities and “what ifs”.  Games which use mechanics of dice rolling and instant death can help students to see that the people who were living at the time didn’t have a linear narrative to follow.  For them tomorrow was full of possibilities, just as the students’ own lives are full of possibilities. This realization increases their empathy with the people they find in the textbook both on a cognitive level and an affective one.

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 Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week. 

Serious Games for Serious Issues

As I expect is true of many folks, I am for sure still processing the results of our recent presidential election. As I work toward my own next steps I appreciate this post over on the Prof Hacker blog by good friend of the CUNY Games Network Anastasia Salter, which reviews several games about the election, politics, and more. Check it out over on Prof Hacker:

6 Games for Talking about the Election, by Anastasia Salter