July 27, 2008

Strata, the game

Today, I'm in limbo: I finished my summer class with an all-day session yesterday, but the papers aren't due until tomorrow at noon, so I have a day to recuperate from being on my feet for 8 hours. (I also picked up my daughter from the airport, and we waited around for a while because the ground crew isn't allowed on the tarmac to unload luggage if there is lightning within a few miles, so I didn't get home until about 8 pm or so.)

I have a few odds and ends I can get off the table today, until the rush hits. I need to prepare the next EPAA article, though the next one shouldn't be too hard, and I could finish the basic prep work tomorrow morning. I also have a few mini-projects for the fall classes: the basic story for our undergraduate social foundations case (each year, we create a new dilemma for teachers in the fictional town of Anchovy), the historical case for my undergrad history of ed class, and something I'm going with my online class: a game.

The point of this is less the gameplay than the discussion around the game -- since the class will be asynchronous, I need to generate discussion about education policy that gets students well out of their comfort zone. This has been a consistent concern of mine since I first taught the class some years ago. The idea is to create gameplay that includes several key topics in the class (the roles of schools, meritocratic assumptions, stratification models, etc.--all familiar in social foundations) but is flexible enough for (a) me to run it as a minor part of my teaching time and (b) people to imbue the gameplay with different meanings (and thus generate open discussion).

The storyline is simple: small groups of students will control the key decisions of families (one family per group), and I will tell them that their goal is to maximize the wealth of their familly. Every round, they'll be voting as a class on basic education policy (distribution of educational opportunity in a very simplistic manner), and then the families will make decisions about additional investments (if they can afford it -- each family will begin with different amounts of wealth and the proportion of family members with high school or college degrees). I'm not yet sure how to translate education policy and the additional investments into the next step, but students will then have to perform some task (probably a quiz on that week's reading), which will be translated into the families' new adult educational attainment. And then, depending on the economic environment, the families' prior wealth and cumulative educational attainment will translate into each family's assets at the end of the round.

And then the next round begins...

I've figured out the hard part mechanically: coming up with formulas for different economic conditions (a boom, a bust, steady growth, and stagnation). I suspect education policy and family investments in "tutoring" will translate into certain conditions on the reading quiz, but that will take care of itself. After 4-5 weeks, I will probably offer the class a chance to change a number of rules by vote... but with the possibility that wealthier families could bribe the GM to veto the class choice. And then a little over halfway through the semester, I will restart the game and give the entire class an opportunity to rewrite the rules before they know what families they're in or what the initial conditions are. (Yes, there's an explicit parallel to John Rawls here.)

I hope this is the right structure: students make two decisions each week (voting on one policy question, making a family decision about additional investments), take a quiz, and then see the family's attainment and wealth status at the end of the week. That's not much in terms of game play, deliberately, but the outcomes are unpredictable (in part because of their actions and in part because the economic circumstances will change every week). The vote and the investment decision will be an opportunity for discussion, and the quiz should encourage members of a "family" to help each other. And then the opportunities later to change the rules... well, we'll see.

In looking for a name, I thought about the layering involved here: the way that initial conditions (distribution of wealth and educational attainment) have consequences for later rounds, the deliberate stratification of initial conditions, and the layering of discussion on top of gameplay (I hope). For some reason, I looked at food. I first thought of strudel, but the twists... nah. Just not layered. Kugel is more of a pudding and lasagne: no. Just not "lasagne" as a title for a social foundations game. Then my wife told me of the bread-and-vegetable layer baked dish called strata. Even the name fits the meaning!

So Strata, the game, it is.

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Posted in Education policy on July 27, 2008 1:09 PM |