World Simulation: Part One: Constructing the World

In my last post, I described my “anti-teaching” philosophy that led me to experiment with different ways of teaching cultural anthropology in very large introductory classes. So far, the most radical and intensive experiment I have tried is the “World Simulation.” In this post I will briefly discuss some of the background of the simulation and then discuss how our “world” is constructed prior to the actual simulation itself. This project is a major work in progress, of which I can no longer claim to be the sole author. Many of the 1000+ students who have been a part of the simulation over the past 2 years have added innumerable remarkable ideas that have since been incorporated.

I first thought about doing the world simulation when I discovered the Pandya-Chispa game used by the Peace Corps (with other variations used in various leadership and diversity training seminars). In this activity, people are split into two groups and each group gets their own handout describing their “cultural norms” which tell them how to interact with outsiders. The two groups then try to interact using their different cultural norms, resulting in misunderstandings, difficulties, etc. This creates a platform to discuss the challenges and importance of effective cross-cultural communication. I used this game with my students as an “ice breaker” and then started wondering what it might look like if we just expanded it to simulate the entire world.

About 6 months ago I discovered I wasn’t the only one who has ever tried this kind of thing. Starting in the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller created a “World Game” which is similar to the simulation we do here. Fuller created the game with the noble cause of critiquing “cold war games” by challenging participants to find a way to make “the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or the disadvantage of anyone.” The development of his World Game has since been picked up by o.s. Earth, which will do a Global Simulation Workshop for you for $3,500 – $8,000. From what I can see on their website, the simulation looks great, but it is designed for 3 hours rather than a full semester. Because of this, it misses out on the most important part of the simulation. As my TA Kevin Champion noted, most of the learning comes from building it, setting it up, and designing it, not in its performance. While I provide guidance in the form of lectures, readings, handouts, and basic rules, most of the actual construction of our imaginary world is done by the students themselves.

I have found that every little piece of the simulation raises questions for the students and me. I find myself asking questions and pursuing information I would have never otherwise pursued, and it all feels extraordinarily relevant and important because it is all fitting into that big picture question about how the world works and why it is the way it is. Why are some people so rich and others so poor? Are the two related? In what ways? How can it be that we produce enough food to go around and yet some people are starving? How will we, as the human species, survive the next 100 years (or 1,000 or 10,000 or 1 million years)? It’s like taking Yali’s Question and pursuing it both as it was taken by Jared Diamond (How the West won) and how it was (more correctly) understood by Gewertz and Errington (Why the West thinks they won and how they – perhaps unconsciously – ensure that they keep on “winning”). All the while I’m wondering (and I hope my students are also wondering) whether or not these are really the right questions to be asking – or if there might not be better, more productive questions to ask.

Questions loom over every single aspect of the simulation, and because I do not know everything and the simulation attempts to simulate everything, I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way. My job becomes less about teaching, and more about encouraging students to join me on a quest.

It all starts with the map, which itself is full of questions. Buckminster Fuller knew the importance of drawing a map one way rather than another. In Fuller’s game, they use Fuller’s own super-cool Dymaxion projection of our real world which does not distort the continents, has no culturally biased “up” or “down” and can be folded in numerous ways to show multiple perspectives. If I ever do use a real world map, it will be that one, but for now I have decided to stick with an imaginary world in order to release the class from attempting to “imitate” world history rather than “simulate” it.

Drawing an imaginary map also has the advantage of forcing me and the students to ask questions, which is what this is all about. The big question here is this: What geographical features are most relevant to performing a reasonable simulation? That is, what geographical features played a role in shaping human history that was significant enough to include on the map?

The first semester I tried this in Fall 2004, we were restricted in our map-making by the fact that we had to use the classroom – which basically looks like a large movie theater with 492 immoveable seats and a stage. We decided to make the aisles between the seats “oceans” and “waterways” while the seats and stage became land masses. Due to these constraints, the first map came out looking like this (with each box in the right-hand image representing a different section taught by a TA):

World Simulation Map Fall 2004

Although we were constrained, we still found ways to include a number of very small but important features in this map that I cannot enumerate here, but just as an example, we intentionally created a land bridge through the lower middle of the room so that those racing to colonize the world would need to race to find a way to build a canal (such as the Suez or Panama).

Since then, I have gained more support for the project, and we now do the simulation in our Union Ballroom, a large open area that allows us much more flexibility. We can put chairs and tables representing land masses wherever we want in the room, giving us more options for how we draw the map. (You will notice I use the word “we” a lot. This is to indicate that anything “I” do as part of the simulation is always tentative and requires student approval and/or revision). In its most recent incarnation, the map looks like this:

World Simulation Map Spring 2006

As you can see, the world is divided into a number of different biomes that are reasonably realistic. The shape of the continents is also important, thanks to Jared Diamond’s book which has already been thoroughly discussed here on Savage Minds. After reading Diamond’s book I decided to create one continent with an east-west axis and one with a north-south axis. I am not fully convinced of Diamond’s argument on this point, but I am convinced he has raised an interesting question (raised by others before him), which I like to bring in as part of the discussion. (If any of you know of other resources that could help me add to this I would love to hear about them – and an absolutely devastating critique of using Diamond in this way would also be welcome.)

From the moment the map is introduced, students are asked to imagine themselves within their own particular environment. They are required to do some outside research on their biome and begin to imagine exactly what kinds of vegetation and wildlife they have in their environment.

While all group members should be a part of constructing each aspect of their culture, one person is assigned to each section and is responsible for writing a 500 word ethnography section to contribute to the group’s final ethnography. Sections include communication styles, gender roles, subsistence, exchange, family and household, marriage, kinship, social organization, political organization, art, and religion among others. The resulting ethnography is far too functionalist by today’s standards, but the format serves obvious practical purposes (each student is responsible for part of the final product), and I will admit that I think functionalism can play an important role in helping students understand that different aspects of culture need to be understood in broader cultural contexts. (Again, I welcome critique on this point.)

Each major section takes about one week to cover. I lecture for about 100 minutes/week with the other 50 minutes left for students to apply what they have learned in the construction of their cultures. I have considered changing this ratio (and have even toyed with the idea of abandoning lecture altogether) but the mixture of methods has been effective enough to this point that I am afraid of making such a major revision.

Even the order in which I cover the topics raises important questions. Whatever goes first may be interpreted as being the most important because all decisions the students make about their culture will ultimately be at least partially determined by the first. Starting with subsistence may imply cultural materialism, starting with social structure could imply a crude structural-functionalism, etc. Again, the simple solution is just to let the students in on the question. I let them know why the decision is so difficult and that while every aspect of culture is in someway related to the others, we have to start somewhere.

Ultimately, for the simple reason that the textbook proceeds from infrastructure through superstructure, I follow suit, and it has some nice unintentional payoffs for the simulation.

We begin with communication styles as a way of breaking the ice. I ask them to create special greetings to use among themselves. These serve as micro-rituals of integration and help build a sense of community. Some of these micro-rituals are ridiculously silly, but they serve the important purpose of opening the students up to one another.

The section on subsistence sends us into an exploration of Diamond’s version of Yali’s Question (but not just Diamond’s answers) – exploring 13,000 years of various changes in subsistence strategies to determine what subsistence patterns might predominate in different areas of our simulated world. I then use the exchange section as a way of critiquing Diamond by introducing the difference between gifts and commodities (pointing out that Yali may have been more concerned with how his worth as a human being was perceived by Europeans rather than the worth of the cargo itself). I also use this as an opportunity to foreshadow at least part of the big picture we want to simulate through a discussion of “Coca-Colanization” (using clips from “The Cola Conquest” featuring Sid Mintz) – demonstrating how market economies are spreading and how that affects people in different ways throughout the world.

From subsistence and exchange we move on to various aspects of social structure (family and household, kinship, stratification, etc.). The great learning moment of this process comes when students realize that they cannot even make the decision they are currently trying to make because they have not yet made future decisions. For example, they may discover that their family and household structure not only depends on their subsistence strategies but also on their core values and political organization which we have not yet discussed by that point. This causes great concern and confusion among the students (which is great!). They get stressed, begin to hate me and the whole project, and then it suddenly all comes together and all is good again.

The next great learning moment is when they realize that they not only need to know more about themselves, but also more about others and how they might relate to them. So they begin to understand the importance of interconnections even before the simulation begins.

From social and political organization we move on to a discussion of religion, cultural values, and ideologies which provide a perfect capstone. This final discussion allows the students to provide themselves with guidelines for how they will represent themselves and act in the simulation. I ask them to make a strong effort to abandon their Kansan habits, values, and ideologies and really try to get into character.

For the simulation to work, there needs to be at least one final ritual to ensure the people in each group are comfortable with one another and ready to act out their culture. In the past, I have asked students to invent their own ritual that expresses their core identity to the rest of our world and perform it in front of the class. What they do is of little importance. What matters is that they have a bonding experience. This was very effective, but a few groups created videos instead and these actually served the purpose even better because it forced the students to get together outside of class and do something fun together. This semester I am assigning videos for all groups but may switch back if it doesn’t work out. The videos will be shown the day before the actual simulation, as a way for people to see the whole world that we have created and begin to imagine what might happen on the big day.

So that’s roughly how we create our world. As one student once joked just before the simulation, “It took us 13 weeks to create this world. We’ll destroy it within an hour.” More on that hour in the next post …

14 thoughts on “World Simulation: Part One: Constructing the World

  1. It would be interesting to start with the cultural structures and then figure out how to accomodate the environment to them. Some of us would say that this is how things work anyway, but regardless it might play well in the heartland of the “family values” folks. They also might be surprised to find what ‘the same’ values and ideas that they have in Kansas might result in when put in a different location and given some time to ripen.

    Plus just think: If you put “Essential Ultimate Cultural Meanings” at the center of your course, you can make them read more of The Minor Works Of Rodney Needham!

  2. That’s a great idea. The danger of environmental determinism being read into this has always been the element that most concerns me about the whole exercise. Inverting it would be a way to counter this. If I could somehow work in both approaches they could hopefully understand the dialectic at work.

  3. Of course, it’s not as if landscape isn’t anthropogenic even if it takes longer with some technologies in some places than in others to genic it. After all, the Wahgi wasn’t grassland 40,000 years ago but it became so once highlanders got their (stone) axes into it. I’m not sure how you work time-depth in the game, but you might want to have people choose their dispositions first, and then when they start the game they might find out that large sections of their arboreal forests are no longer around, or the large, flightless birds they were told they lived with aren’t actually around any more when 1400 starts, or that surprise they’ve built canoes and migrated half-way around the world.

    Might be a way to integrate more prehistory (read: archaeology) into your course. Or not.

  4. [I wrote the following before Rex's second post]

    I am not sure Rex’s suggestion would lead to a way around evironmental determinism by itself. It seems to apply only to cases of migration or colonialism (which may already be built into the structure of the world-sim) – where a group of people whose culture came about in one place are transcribed to another, whereupon they try to map the old world onto the new one (like trying to farm sheep in Outback Australia), but inevitably ‘ripen’ under new conditions ( = Aussie farming culture). Now, an environmental determinist would say they changed because of the new environment and we would be back where we started. You might reply by pointing out that the cultural predispositions of Aussie Farmers cause them to behave differently from local Aboriginal people say, and thus ‘essential cultural meanings’ are more/as important. But the environmental determinist would argue that the Farmers actually came from a European environment with its Guns, Germs and Steel, and the affordances of that environment are what has allowed them to behave as they do in Australia. And we could go back and forth forever…

    The main problem in this respect is that the course is partly (mostly?) a thought experiment and so relies heavily on the predispositions of theory and knowledge of the students/teachers. In the ‘real world’ people grow within a particular lifeword or umwelt that encompasses environment, other people, and personal bodily experience. You can’t replicate that in class. But what you can do (and presumably do do) is draw attention to the way the student ethnographies require a creative practice that considers the situated nature of culture in an explicit way – and that this ‘creative consideration’ is akin or parallel to real-world cultural practice/human experience. The students writing about religious beliefs or whatever have to do this relationally…drawing on their own creative experience in comparision to other (social and environmental) aspects of their ‘world’. To me that seems the only way to understand the dialectic at work. Presumably, if you put two groups of students into identical environments and let them grow, the two resulting ‘cultures’ would be different but have some structural similarities? The case against environmental determinism would be clear, but the effect of particular constraints and affordances would also be evident.

    The whole excercise by the way, sounds f-ing great.

  5. I think that Tim has a lot of good points. I also wonder if it might be asking too much of the simulation to have it illustrate *everything* one wants one’s students to know about culture. What the simulation gives students (it seems to me) is a creative and flexible way to think through what they are learning. A way, as Mike said, to develop questions, and some reason besides a test to think through lectures and come to an understanding. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if they come out with a somewhat simplistic understanding of culture (who doesn’t after first year?) if they do have the tools to ask important questions and an experience that shows that learning can be valuable for more than just grades.

    I’m following this with lots of interest. I described it to some of my students (I’m TAing our second-year intro to cultural anth, which is about 500 students, of which I have about 90) and they thought it sounded fantastic. I was wondering, given that there are going to be multiple posts on the topic and that there is a lot of interest in it, if perhaps Savage Minds could add a “World Simulation” tag/category? I’d like to be able to link to all of the posts together, without the intervening ones that might come up if I linked to one of the present categories listed.

  6. I still find hard to imagine this thing in concrete terms– as it is with things that are learned by doing.
    Especially about parameters given and options to be added by the students I would be grateful to be given more information. This question is not about idea and theory–these you have worked out quite clearly–but about practice.

    A scarce moment of recognition to me reading your post was that you start practice with communication (-styles), as ‘communication’ at my corner of the anthroworld (means my university) contemporarily is central in the concept of culture.

  7. Thx btw for the link to Gewertz and Errington – I agree with considering the reconstitution of Western Supremacy Discourse within academia as questionable.

Comments are closed.