How I Teach Philosophy Using Games

There are lots of ways in which the success of education cannot, and should not, be measured in a student’s final grade. But for various reasons, schools and colleges and the political establishments that fund them want to see a definite mathematically-quantifiable result, at the end of every course. There are only so many ways to do this: tests, quizzes, essays, and the like. And a lot of students feel alienated or even hurt by these methods: they might encourage rote-memorization instead of comprehension, or they might reward conformity instead of autonomous critical reasoning. So I have been working on ways to make my evaluations more interesting, useful, and fun for students, while at the same time satisfying the institutional requirements for a quantifiable grade at the end of the day. And one of the ways I do this is by playing games. Here’s an example.

This term, I am teaching business ethics; I have two sections of the class, with around 65 students in total. Last week, I presented them with a market capitalism simulation game that I invented. In brief, the game works like this. The students form five teams. Each team is a “company” that makes a certain product, and their productivity is determined by dice throws. Each team needs the products made by the other teams to assemble a complete finished product, which is then “sold” to me. I play the role of the end-product consumer, and I set my level of consumer demand with a dice throw. Thus players have to negotiate and trade with other teams: this much represents the co-operative aspect of capitalism, the relationship between a manufacturing company and its various suppliers. But I’ve also stipulated that whichever team makes the most money by the end of the two hours “wins” (and I toss in a small incentive for winning). So there is also a competitive aspect.

This isn’t a perfect simulation of capitalism. But that’s okay because it’s not supposed to be. The game isn’t really about capitalism. It’s about ethics: specifically, it’s about trust, fair play, and co-operation, and also cheating, fraud, and deception. What the students don’t know, because I don’t tell them until after the fourth of fifth round, is that I’ve been keeping a record of every team’s original productivity. Four or five rounds into the game, I audit their balance books. The last time I ran this game in class, I discovered that there were more “units” of three (out of five) commodities in circulation than there should have been, compared to my record. A fourth team’s productivity was fully accounted for, and a fifth team saw some of its productivity disappear, probably due to an accounting error. It’s also possible that the excess productivity appeared through an accounting error, but since that kind of error benefits the team that it affects, it’s more likely that someone somewhere exploited another player’s trust for private gain – possibly without the other team-mates knowledge. Certainly, that’s what it would look like to other players. At this point, I announce that as the end consumer, I have read the auditor’s report and I decide that whether the discrepancy is from errors or from fraud, nonetheless I have lost consumer confidence, and I reduce my rate of demand. Everyone is affected. Just as happens in real life.

Now there are two ways a teacher could use a game like this as an evaluation tool. One is by giving points to students who win. I don’t like doing this most of the time, because students who “lose” may still be learning something, and their learning experience has to be acknowledged and rewarded somehow. What I have been doing lately is this: we play the game in class, and then students write a report about what happened when they played it. What strategies for winning were successful? How did players negotiate with their team-mates for a strategy they wanted to try, and how did they negotiate with players on rival teams? Was any cheating detected, and how did it affect the negotiations, and the results? Could any of the moral and/or economic theories discussed in previous lectures explain what happened?

My pedagogical games are not always successful. I sometimes wrestle with student apathy and deliberate resistance: some students who don’t see the point of the game (or who are on the cusp of losing) would rather disrupt the game for everyone, rather than take the time to think it through. But most of the time, using games as evaluation tools is very successful. There is laughter, and imagination, and experimentation. People sometimes thank me on their way out of the room at the end of a session. Think about this: no normal student enjoys a test, and thanks the prof for it. But when I turn the evaluation into a game, they sometimes do. My college is very open minded to experimental evaluation methods: we recently built an extension on our building to house a special “Active Learning” classroom.

Games are good for us. Games help us develop all kinds of skills, from hand-eye coordination to strategic planning. They help us build empathy with team-mates, and they can encourage the kind of competition that leads to excellence. Games can even be used to explain social justice issues, or to assist people recovering from illnesses. (I tip my hat to developers like Jane McGonigal and Brenda Brathwaite here.) And, of course, games are fun! In fact, one of my other pedagogical games, a game designed to simulate party-political competition, proved so popular with my students that they encouraged me to publish it. And that seems like success to me.

Please contact me privately if you are interested in a complete description of the rules of the game described in this blog post.

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