Teaching Using A World Simulation Game

On the anthropology blog Savage Minds, Kansas State University anthropologist Michael Wesch wrote a series of posts in 2006 on an large introduction to cultural anthropology class he teaches using a semester long world simulation game.

The class sounds really great, and based on his students comments in the comments of his post, really transformative for the students. The active learning, constructivist approach sounds similar to the philosophy to what the McGill School of the Environment is based upon and what I try to do in my courses. I’ve done a number of 1 1/2 hour long environmental management simulations in my Adaptive Management course, but never anything as complex as this project. Doing a similar type of world simulation could be a really interesting activity for one of the School of the Environment’s trans-disciplinary introduction courses.

One of the main advantages of the semester long game is that students are asked to synthesize the course material to produce the rules of the game. What could be interesting to examine is how the game turns out differently with different rules. This could be done by running the game a number of different times – or breaking the class into multiple games – so that people could compare and think about the outcomes of different decisions. But of course, this type of approach isn’t always practical.

Below I have combined extensive extracys from Mike Wesch’s series of posts in a way that describes the simulation and the thinking behind it. His posts have even more details, including his reflections and concerns over various choices he makes, as well as a number of interesting comments from other people and former students.


Wesch bases his teaching approach on enabling students to learn. He writes that his goal is:

…inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions.

[Good questions are]…the kind of questions that force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.

Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. … Frustrated with this question, and hoping to get my students to ask better questions, I decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers.

… the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that students are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Soon after I set out on this course I found a book that seemed to resonate with my philosophy, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Borrowing from Marshal McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” Postman and Weingartner argue that the environment (or “medium”) of learning is more important than the content (the “message”) and therefor teachers should begin paying more attention to the learning environment they help to create. The emphasis is on “managing” this environment rather than teaching per se.
This is not in any way a cop out of “real” teaching. In fact, approaching a class of 400 as a “manager” is a tremendous task. … I wanted the students to be fully engaged, talking to one another, grappling with interesting questions, and exploring any and all resources to find answers (and more questions). I wanted them to really get a strong sense of the importance of what we discuss in cultural anthropology. I wanted them to expand their empathy, to actually try to experience the life-worlds of others. Above all, I wanted them to recognize their own importance in helping to shape an increasingly globally interconnected world society.

So that is why I set out to create the World Simulation. Students are asked to imagine the world in the classroom. We create a map that mimics the geographical, environmental, and biological diversity of our real world. The map is laid onto a map of the classroom, and students are asked to imagine themselves living in the environment that maps onto them. The class is divided into 15-20 groups of about 12-20 students in each group. Each group is challenged to create their own cultures to survive in their own unique environments.

… To add realism, students are required to provide comparisons to real life cultures at every step along the way, justifying why they have chosen to construct their culture in one way rather than another (sometimes creating elaborate histories to explain some unique characteristic). Three weeks before the end of the semester, all groups have completed their culture and submit a final ethnography to me. I read these over, and begin planning the main event: the world simulation.
The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It all takes place in large room where all of the “cultures” interact with one another with props for currencies, natural resources, and other elements that recreate the world system. … we attempt to simulate (not “act out”) world history in an attempt to understand the underlying social and cultural processes that interconnect us all. The ultimate goal is to allow students to actually experience how the world system works and explore some of the most important questions now facing humanity such as those of global inequality, globalization, culture loss, environmental degradation, and in the worst case scenario, genocide.

The simulation is recorded on 5 roaming digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from “real world” history to illustrate the correspondences. We watch the video together during the last week of class and have amazing moments together as we contemplate our world. By then it seems as if we have the whole world right before our eyes in one single classroom – profound cultural differences, profound economic differences, profound challenges for the future … and one humanity. We find ourselves as co-creators of our world, and the future is up to us. It is in this environment that even the worst questions take on all the characteristics of the best: What do we need to know for this test?

In two later articles (1, 2)

I first thought about doing the world simulation when I discovered the Pandya-Chispa game used by the Peace Corps (with other variations used in various leadership and diversity training seminars). In this activity, people are split into two groups and each group gets their own handout describing their “cultural norms” which tell them how to interact with outsiders. The two groups then try to interact using their different cultural norms, resulting in misunderstandings, difficulties, etc. This creates a platform to discuss the challenges and importance of effective cross-cultural communication. I used this game with my students as an “ice breaker” and then started wondering what it might look like if we just expanded it to simulate the entire world.

… As my TA Kevin Champion noted, most of the learning comes from building it, setting it up, and designing it, not in its performance. While I provide guidance in the form of lectures, readings, handouts, and basic rules, most of the actual construction of our imaginary world is done by the students themselves.

I have found that every little piece of the simulation raises questions for the students and me. I find myself asking questions and pursuing information I would have never otherwise pursued, and it all feels extraordinarily relevant and important because it is all fitting into that big picture question about how the world works and why it is the way it is. Why are some people so rich and others so poor? Are the two related? In what ways? How can it be that we produce enough food to go around and yet some people are starving? How will we, as the human species, survive the next 100 years (or 1,000 or 10,000 or 1 million years)?

Questions loom over every single aspect of the simulation, and because I do not know everything and the simulation attempts to simulate everything, I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way. My job becomes less about teaching, and more about encouraging students to join me on a quest.

It all starts with the map, which itself is full of questions. … Drawing an imaginary map also has the advantage of forcing me and the students to ask questions, which is what this is all about. The big question here is this: What geographical features are most relevant to performing a reasonable simulation? That is, what geographical features played a role in shaping human history that was significant enough to include on the map?

The first semester I tried this in Fall 2004, we were restricted in our map-making by the fact that we had to use the classroom – which basically looks like a large movie theater with 492 immoveable seats and a stage. We decided to make the aisles between the seats “oceans” and “waterways” while the seats and stage became land masses. Due to these constraints, the first map came out looking like this (with each box in the right-hand image representing a different section taught by a TA):
1st year world simulation map

Although we were constrained, we still found ways to include a number of very small but important features in this map that I cannot enumerate here, but just as an example, we intentionally created a land bridge through the lower middle of the room so that those racing to colonize the world would need to race to find a way to build a canal (such as the Suez or Panama).

Since then, I have gained more support for the project, and we now do the simulation in our Union Ballroom, a large open area that allows us much more flexibility. We can put chairs and tables representing land masses wherever we want in the room, giving us more options for how we draw the map. (You will notice I use the word “we” a lot. This is to indicate that anything “I” do as part of the simulation is always tentative and requires student approval and/or revision). In its most recent incarnation, the map looks like this:

2nd year world simulation map

As you can see, the world is divided into a number of different biomes that are reasonably realistic. The shape of the continents is also important, thanks to Jared Diamond’s book which has already been thoroughly discussed here on Savage Minds. After reading Diamond’s book I decided to create one continent with an east-west axis and one with a north-south axis. …

From the moment the map is introduced, students are asked to imagine themselves within their own particular environment. They are required to do some outside research on their biome and begin to imagine exactly what kinds of vegetation and wildlife they have in their environment.

While all group members should be a part of constructing each aspect of their culture, one person is assigned to each section and is responsible for writing a 500 word ethnography section to contribute to the group’s final ethnography. Sections include communication styles, gender roles, subsistence, exchange, family and household, marriage, kinship, social organization, political organization, art, and religion among others. The resulting ethnography is far too functionalist by today’s standards, but the format serves obvious practical purposes (each student is responsible for part of the final product), and I will admit that I think functionalism can play an important role in helping students understand that different aspects of culture need to be understood in broader cultural contexts. …

Each major section takes about one week to cover. I lecture for about 100 minutes/week with the other 50 minutes left for students to apply what they have learned in the construction of their cultures. I have considered changing this ratio (and have even toyed with the idea of abandoning lecture altogether) but the mixture of methods has been effective enough to this point that I am afraid of making such a major revision.

We begin with communication styles as a way of breaking the ice. I ask them to create special greetings to use among themselves. These serve as micro-rituals of integration and help build a sense of community. Some of these micro-rituals are ridiculously silly, but they serve the important purpose of opening the students up to one another.

The section on subsistence sends us into an exploration of Diamond’s version of Yali’s Question (but not just Diamond’s answers) – exploring 13,000 years of various changes in subsistence strategies to determine what subsistence patterns might predominate in different areas of our simulated world. …

From subsistence and exchange we move on to various aspects of social structure (family and household, kinship, stratification, etc.). The great learning moment of this process comes when students realize that they cannot even make the decision they are currently trying to make because they have not yet made future decisions. For example, they may discover that their family and household structure not only depends on their subsistence strategies but also on their core values and political organization which we have not yet discussed by that point. This causes great concern and confusion among the students (which is great!). They get stressed, begin to hate me and the whole project, and then it suddenly all comes together and all is good again.

The next great learning moment is when they realize that they not only need to know more about themselves, but also more about others and how they might relate to them. So they begin to understand the importance of interconnections even before the simulation begins.

From social and political organization we move on to a discussion of religion, cultural values, and ideologies which provide a perfect capstone. This final discussion allows the students to provide themselves with guidelines for how they will represent themselves and act in the simulation. I ask them to make a strong effort to abandon their Kansan habits, values, and ideologies and really try to get into character.

For the simulation to work, there needs to be at least one final ritual to ensure the people in each group are comfortable with one another and ready to act out their culture. In the past, I have asked students to invent their own ritual that expresses their core identity to the rest of our world and perform it in front of the class. What they do is of little importance. What matters is that they have a bonding experience. This was very effective, but a few groups created videos instead and these actually served the purpose even better because it forced the students to get together outside of class and do something fun together. This semester I am assigning videos for all groups but may switch back if it doesn’t work out. The videos will be shown the day before the actual simulation, as a way for people to see the whole world that we have created and begin to imagine what might happen on the big day.

So that’s roughly how we create our world. As one student once joked just before the simulation, “It took us 13 weeks to create this world. We’ll destroy it within an hour.” …

The simulation is made up of 4 or 5 interaction rounds. Each interaction round runs for about 12 minutes followed by a 3 minute intermission allowing students to take account of what has occurred and to see if they can “feed themselves.” The main rule of the simulation is very simple: in order to survive, at the end of each round each student must have a piece of food (cereal) to eat. This will require either land (represented by a cereal box from which the student can get food) or money to buy food from others. If a student cannot eat at the end of the interaction, their death is marked as a “famine” by the “cultural historian” (see below) and the death decreases the total population of the culture by 5%. The student who starved must go to a nearby land as a refugee and hope for the best.

After the intermission, there is a 3 minute “news update” which I use to draw connections to real world events that are currently being simulated. The news is an audio-visual extravaganza complete with commercials advertising some of the new products being created by emerging imperialists.

At the beginning of the simulation, each group has at least 3 things: a box of cereal representing their “land,” envelopes to be opened at the beginning of each round (providing various challenges or instructions), and a collection of colored notecards representing various resources or goods that they can trade with others (these can represent many things depending on their ethnography, but some examples are white = salt, green = plant materials, orange = obsidian, and pink = shells).

All the props cost me just over $100. The most important props are boxes of cereal. There are three types of cereal in the simulation, each one of them profoundly symbolic. Fruit Loops represent a rich, varied, and nutritious diet. I’m aware of the irony of this, but the multiple colors are what set them apart. Cocoa Puffs represent luxury consumption goods such as cocoa, coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Cheerios represent large-scale monocrop cultivation. Of course, almost as soon as the simulation begins all of the cereals begin to take on different meanings for different people, which is exactly how it should be.

Each culture also has one sacred item, usually represented by a stuffed animal. The meanings they attach to this are up to them.

Populations are adjusted to represent the estimated population of the world in 1450 CE (about 400 million). The population automatically grows in each interaction, simulating the real world’s population growth so that we end the 2nd to last round with 6.2 billion people. (The last round is a special “future projection” round in which we try to solve all of the problems we have created.) Throughout the simulation the population of each group may increase or decrease based on famine, disease, or a shift to a new subsistence pattern (e.g. industrial agriculture would increase the “carrying capacity” and thereby increase the population).

Based on the ethnographies, I create mobility maps for each group showing where they are able to travel. Anybody who travels must carry a mobility map with them and cannot go beyond the boundaries that their mobility map sets for them.

I select 3-5 groups who seem to be on the verge of seeking other areas to explore or colonize. They are given full mobility to travel the entire world and a separate set of instructions with a box of materials that facilitate the colonization of other lands. Their materials include colored flags to mark their conquests, various tools and materials to facilitate production of luxury goods, money, and a special map that tells them where certain luxury goods will grow and where they will not (so Cocoa Puffs only grow in certain areas, Fruit Loops grow better in some areas than others, etc.). I can’t reveal those materials or instructions here because much of the simulation depends on an element of surprise that forces students to find solutions to emerging issues or capitalize on the opportunities given. Starting in the second round, these three groups are also required to find fossil fuels (represented by yellow notecards) to power their industrial revolution. They need to turn in one yellow card at the end of each round or they lose half of their hard power. There are not enough yellow cards in the room to last until the end of the last round (representing 100 years into the future).

Those with money can participate in the world market exchange – a table in the front of the room where groups can exchange money, natural resources and hard power. Exchange rates change throughout the simulation to simulate technological developments, scarcity, and other factors.

Hard Power & the Rules of War

Each culture starts with a certain amount of hard power with which to launch attacks or protect themselves. Hard power is represented on small cards with numbers ranging from 0 to 1,000,000. Each culture has as many as 50 hard power cards with different numbers on them. The total amount of hard power a culture starts with depends on their population, technology, and other relevant cultural factors. When traveling a student should carry some of this hard power with them either for protection or conquest, however they have to strategize because taking too much depletes the amount of hard power others in the group can carry or could leave the homeland completely unprotected. Alliances can also be made, allowing one culture to draw on the hard power of the other and vice versa.

A battle begins when somebody from one culture challenges another. Both sides quickly decide how much hard power they want to use in the first battle and place these cards in their right hand. At the count of 3 each side shows the other the hard power they are holding in their right hand. The side with the most hard power wins the battle and gets all of the hard power expended by the other culture. The war is over when one side surrenders or is completely out of hard power. Terms of surrender are negotiable between the two warring parties but may include a right to hold on to some hard power, money, land rights, etc.

The winner occupies the land and then acts as a colonizer or occupier. The colonizer can tax the people, take the land, force people into labor, or force them to grow different crops.

Of course, this is where it gets interesting.

As I said before, I cannot reveal too much, but this is how the simulation has typically gone in the past 3 trials:

We start by arranging the tables in the room to match our world map as closely as possible:

starting map and class room

Emerging colonial powers almost immediately begin exploration and colonization and have colonized most of the world by the end of the second round.

2nd round
Colonizers often attempt to completely transform local economies. They tax or take the land (the box of Fruit Loops), forcing the local people to work for money to survive. This not only creates a cheap labor pool, it also creates a market for their exports (Cheerios). They use the cheap labor to manufacture luxury goods (Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loop necklaces).

As the simulation proceeds, the colonies begin to acquire an emerging sense of nationalism and a growing population. Eventually they overthrow their colonizer, or the colonizer finds it too difficult to manage the colony. There are often several atrocities during this phase of the simulation that send refugees to other lands. Several new nation-states also form during this time.

Even as processes of decolonization set people “free,” they still find that they are dependent on a global system of trade in which they are working for low wages and spending all of their money on goods exported from previous colonial centers. The world system of the real world maps onto our simulated world:

world system

Prior to the final round, students are asked to look around at the world they have created. We take a quick survey to determine how our numbers compare to those of the real world. Like the real world, over half of the people in our world are working for very little money and struggle to find enough food to eat. I announce that there are not enough yellow cards to power the fossil fuel economy through the next round. When they open their envelopes for the final round, they find more problems.

The last round often inspires valiant efforts to solve the world’s problems. Some students try to create expansive alliances with other low-wage laborers to drive wages higher. Others stage protests and beg for empathy from the colonizers.

In our simulation, they have only 10 minutes to think through solutions – a trivial amount of time. The solutions we create are likewise trivial. But the questions the simulation inspires are not. And if students leave the simulation asking questions they didn’t ask before the simulation, or begin asking questions in different ways, there is no telling what might happen.

There are also 2 classes after the actual simulation to discuss the nuances of what occurred. We discuss the interrelationships of global and local systems of power during that time, using what occurred in the simulation as examples.

It sounds like a fantastic project. An article about his class in the Kansas State student newspaper seems to confirm that the students really find it illuminating.

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