Simulating in the Classroom (Part I)

Educational studies show that the human mind needs a change of pace after 10-20 minutes of lecture when academic attention/performance starts to wane (see Burke and Ray 2008). This makes for a challenge in the college classroom where teachers are often required to fill 50-minute, 75-minute, or 150-minute time slots. Traditional approaches to breaking up lecture typically include group work, films, and varied discussion formats. Our Teaching Human Rights blog is filled with innovative alternatives such as experiential learningonline hybrid learning, and service learning. In this post, I introduce in-class simulations as another approach I have found successful which applies directly to human rights courses and to many other courses tackling power, cultural difference, or human nature/relationships. 

Specifically, three types of simulations have proven effective each time I have facilitated them and can easily be integrated into one’s teaching style. In fact, all have a debrief component that can be melded into multiple parts of one’s course. They all take about 2 hours to run, but can easily be split up into two 50-minute classes.  

The simulation I find to be the most interesting and effective was developed by Gary Shirts and is unfortunately called StarPower, a name which gives away what it is really about: an exercise of power. On my syllabi, I rename the simulation “Circles, Tringles, and Squares” and tell the students it is a game “to get to know each other” rather than saying anything about how it will expose the way they handle power. As a way of setting up the simulation, the instructor announces that the 3 people with the highest scores at the end will win the game. Students are broken up into three separate groups (I prefer about 8 students or less per group, but this could be adjusted for a larger class) and during the first two trading rounds it becomes clear that there are three separate groups in terms of scores—the instructor can move some students around to make sure this happens. In fact, the instructor should move one student from the lowest scoring group to the highest across the two roundsThis effectively tells the false story, illustrated during the debrief, that “anyone can make it” although the structure of the system makes that highly unlikely. The students do not know that their scores were essentially baked into the cake when they received their chips, which are worth different amounts. In fact, it is similar to birth lottery wealth outcomes seen in the “real world.” Where the simulation gets really intriguing is when it is announced that “the squares group clearly has proven to be superior negotiators, thus to shake things up for the final round of trading they will make up the new rules of the game.” 

I then take the “squares” group out of the room and instruct them that they can make up new rules for trading. Students often ask what the point of the game is and I tell them again that the 3 people with the highest scores win. The “squares” typically make the new rules of the game, which can include secret rules only to be announced to the whole class at the end of the game, to not hurt their scoresand usually are extremely beneficial to them. Utopian ideas get crushed quickly if they emerge at all. Meanwhile, the other two groups experience what it is like to not have any power as they are told they can only write down suggestions for the “squares” group that, as facilitator, I provide for them to “consider” from time to time. The lower-class groups get bored and frustrated quicklylooking forward to the simulation being over. When the “squares” have decided on their new rules they come back into the room, yet I hold them at the door to build tension for the “squares” re-entering the room for the final round of trading. Often when they enter they act awkward, typically prideful or sheepish, and frequently receive some taunts from the other groups such as “here come the richy rich.” After this last round is completed, the instructor tells the class: “We actually are not going to tally the final scores. Instead let’s discuss what was this game really about?” The debrief discussion can be quite engaging with students thinking about why they acted the way they did while wielding power and what it felt like being powerless. 

Students actively participating in “Circles, Triangles, and Squares” University of Connecticut Spring 2018

This simulation teaches many things. The creators of it note: “Each of us may be more vulnerable to the temptation to abuse power than we realize. Power can be amazingly seductive.” To relieve tension/animosity that can develop between those in different groups I tell them that no matter who was in the “squares” group that their behavior would very likely be the same—in fact this is a “strong situation” where human nature is very predictable (see Project Implicit 2018)—sort of like following the rules of going through security at the airport. Furthermore, the creators note the following lessons: “To change behavior, it may be necessary to change the system in which that behavior occurs. Few people are likely to participate in an endeavor if they feel powerless. What seems fair to those in power is not likely to seem fair to those who are out of power. Persons who are promoted rarely remember those they leave behind. In any system, there needs to be checks on power. If there are no checks, power will almost certainly be abused.” I have found these points to be true in the multiple times I have run this simulation. 

The website of StarPower suggests the activities are useful with “Groups concerned about the ethical use of power. This generally includes peace groups, classes on racism, diversity, ethics, and almost any other course or activity concerned with making the world a better place to live. Teachers of business, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, or history, who believe that it is important for their students to experience and understand power as a concept.” Of course, there are multiple lessons that can be derived from this that could be incorporated into a variety of human rights-focused courses, especially around the tendency of power to corrupt, or why the human rights for those without power always seem to be under threat, and the general tendency felt by those with power to hold onto their power/wealth. Lastly, if cost is an issue you can create your own version of the simulation—all it takes is different colored chips, envelopes, pins, and an understanding of the basic rules 

Look for Part II of this post with other simulations.

Author. Jack J. Barry, Ph.D. Political Science


Burke, L.A., Ray, R. (2008). Re-setting the concentration levels of students in higher education: an exploratory study. Teaching in Higher Ed. 13(5), 571–582.

Project Implicit Website (2018) Project Implicit Website, Visited December 8th, 2018. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *