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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week.