Playing Games in Class

Economic theory can be pretty dry for many students. This spring I decided to incorporate participatory games and simulations into my intermediate microeconomics class to make the material more concrete and the class a little more fun. We played an imperfect competition game on the first day, and then three more during the term. It went well, but there are some key tweeks I want to make next time around.

A common worry teachers have when considering integrating games is the amount of class time they will take. Each of the games we played took about 15-20 minutes, and while I don’t think of this as a huge sacrifice, students still need learn a sufficient amount by playing the games to make up for the lost lecture time. Research (e.g., Cartright and Stepanova 2012) has shown they do (H/T Bill Goffe), but it is critical to have students reflect on the games after they play. I did this in final problem set:

Choose one of the four experiments we ran during class.
These were Cournot Scooters, the Orange Market, 
Push-Pull (aka Prisoner's Dilemma), and the Fishing Commons.

1. What did theory predict would happen in the experiment?
2. How did this compare to what we actually saw?
3. In no case did an experiment’s outcome exactly match the
   theoretical prediction. Why do you think this didn’t happen
   in your chosen experiment?
4. Are there any lessons learned that can be applied to the
   real world?

In hindsight, it would have been more effective to ask these questions right after each experiment, but I do think the exercise helped students solidify their learning and their answers were for the most part reasonable. They knew what theory said would happen, they recognized when it didn’t happen, and had insightful ideas about why.

At the beginning of each game I encouraged students to play as if there was actual money involved, but the truth is these games were extremely low stakes. Many students suggested this affected how their classmates played the game, especially when we simulated a fishing market. Instead of solely maximizing their own income, students valued the health of the fishing commons highly in their decisions. In the real world, it’s not clear they would have made the same choices. Next time around, I want to either translate in-game “earnings” to points that affect their grade or give per class prizes like candy for students who make the most “money” in the game.

The specific games we played were part of the Moblab platform. It was rock solid and the documentation did a great job guiding me through the whole process. They provide video tutorials for students and even give instructors ideas for motivating the games and connecting them to traditional economic topics.

Alas, all was not sunshine and roses. In their final assignment some students said the lesson they learned from playing the prisoner’s dilemma game was to “always do what maximizes your own utility in the short run.” While this is sometimes a good idea, these students missed the fact that in many contexts cooperating and sacrificing short-term gains can yield big rewards for everyone in the long run.

This summer Edward and I are shaking things up on the Teach Better Podcast: We’re organizing our episodes around categories of educational technology. One upcoming episode will be about game and simulation software like Moblab. We’ll be talking to several people doing cool things with this tech in their classes, and I can’t wait to hear about and share other folks’ experiences.