A short while ago I wrote about my first ‘wow’ moment in educational technology. It concerned using a computer to simulate the workings of a concept in Economics known as ‘the multiplier’. It’s not important what that actually is. More to the point is the fact that it was through using a simple computer program that enabled students to get the concept in an instant, simply because the results of their actions could be seen straight away.
That wasn’t a game as such, but it’s relevant because, just a few years later, I had my students playing a simulation called Running the British Economy. Utilising both the Treasury model and the latest Treasury statistics, the game involved manipulating a number of economic variables in order to keep the economy on an even keel between inflation on the one hand and high unemployment on the other.
Now, the game had value right out of the box. Students were given access to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s goodie bag, and found out after five game years how successful they’d been, as measured by the simple issue of whether they’d been voted back in after a pretend general election.
OK, Sim City it wasn’t, but it was complex, realistic and, crucially, gave feedback on the effects of changing tax rates, interest rates, government spending and many other things. My students ‘got’ it. I entered them for a national competition, and they came second, beating even a team from a private school. They learnt more in the few weeks of playing the game than I could have taught them using traditional methods in a whole term.
But for me, the real value of the simulation became apparent if you decided to try and break the rules – in order to find out what the rules actually were.
So I instructed the class to go for full employment at all costs. Increase government spending. Reduce taxes. Go for it! They succeeded. Within three game years there was 99% employment. There was a slight problem that inflation was running at around 1,000%, but we’ve got to make sacrifices, right?
However, the prospect of riots in the street and the government being lynched didn’t appeal much, so we went for the opposite: zero inflation at all costs. We did it too! Within a year of cutting all non-essential services (health care, police, armed forces, education) we had a negative rate of inflation: prices were actually falling! I’m sure the 2% of people who still had jobs were delighted.
What we discovered from all this is that the Treasury model was based on Keynesian economic theory – which is fine if you believe that to be an accurate descriptor of how the economy works. If, like Margaret Thatcher and others, you do not believe that, then the ability of simulations like Running the British Economy to predict outcomes is seriously called into question.
As a result of mis-playing the game in the way we did, my students and I were able to uncover the underlying assumptions of the economic model being used. That led us on to rich discussions, not only about the assumptions in this particular case, but the fact that they were not made explicit anywhere. How far might other economic ‘predictions’ – such as the one which states that if you reduce State benefits you’ll get more people into work – be based on models whose assumptions are questionable? Perhaps even more to the point, the assumptions you start with determine the result. What playing the game in this showed us was that there’s no such thing as an objective economic model, whatever the pundits try and tell you.
This is just one example of how a game or simulation was used as a means of bringing about some very deep learning in quite a complex area. If you’re interested in how games can be valuable in education, you’re in luck because there are three important events coming up. I’ll be writing about those in a separate article.