September 26, 2013



Gamification is a hot topic at the moment as people try to use the games to engage people for various purposes. This isn’t particularly new. At high school in the 80’s we were regularly told to play supposed teaching games (“make learning fun!”) while the teacher caught up on paperwork. The maths and science games were generally considered crap (stronger students found it too easy, weaker students declared it uncool). The economics games were more popular – a stockmarket game and an economy management game.

Part of the economics games’ success was due to appearing more practical and related to the outside world. However, most interest came from competition – the games were set up to encourage players to compete against classmates and even other schools. The aim of the stockmarket game was to take $10,000 and through buying and selling stocks at the closing price every Wednesday, build the largest fortune possible. Every player’s standing was published each week compared to other students in the class, school and state. The goal of the economic management game was to have the largest GDP among the players after 15 years controlling fiscal and monetary policy. Each school nominated a team to attend a state championship (I was on the team that came just outside the top placings at that championship).

These games certainly stimulated interest, but perhaps not so much learning. Winners tended to be the ones who gamed the game. They played within the rules, but knowingly or otherwise, they took advantage of the simplified reality they modeled. The stockmarket winners always had a high risk strategy. They bought stocks going up fast (transaction costs were ignored). Most people with this plan lost money, but with so many players a few would do extremely well. Students with a more steady approach made small profits, finished a little above average and were ignored as the higher performing riskier results were feted by the teachers. Probably the exact opposite of what should have been taught.

In the economy management game, we quickly learnt that the time horizon was all important. Keeping the economy steady and safely growing throughout the competition was a recipe for a mediocre finish. The winning strategy was a steady economy for most of the time, but then engineer a massive unsustainable boom right before the end of the game. Best would be if this boom would peak in the last year, so the inevitable subsequent deep depression never occurred in game time. At the state championship my team pumped the economy too late. The winning team executed the plan with the best timing. I find it hard to believe this cynicism was the organiser’s intention. Although given subsequent events in various countries’ economies, maybe they were making a strong critique of politics.

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