World Simulation Part Two: The Basics

Using the now classic metaphor, if we imagine all of human evolution to have occurred in the past hour, the last 550 years that the World Simulation attempts to simulate is no more than a few tenths of a second. While these final tenths have brought us tremendous technological advances, they have also brought us unparalleled global inequality, the most deadly wars of all time, and a precarious environmental situation. Our population is more than 10 times what it was just a few short tenths of a second ago. The richest 225 humans on earth have more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion people combined and the richest 20% of humans on earth account for 86% of consumption and on average make over $25,000/year. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion people make less than $1/day and over half the world makes less than $2/day. Humans produce more than enough food to feed everyone in the world, but at least 800 million people are starving. In 2004, worldwide military expenditures were $950 billion. In that same year, Worldwatch estimated that it would cost just $12 billion for reproductive health care for all women, $19 billion for the elimination of hunger and malnutrition, $10 billion for clean drinking water for all, and $13 billion to immunize every child in the world from common major diseases. In these final few tenths of a second we have created a global economy running on nonrenewable fossil fuels, all of which will be gone within the next second on our imaginary clock. The use of these fuels has increased carbon dioxide levels by almost 30%, nitrous oxide by about 15%, and concentrations of methane have more than doubled – all of which contribute to a rise in global temperature leading to rising sea levels, expanding deserts, and more intense storms. Perhaps most dramatic, it is in these final tenths of a second on our metaphorical clock that we human beings have attained the ability to literally stop the clock and annihilate ourselves. Whether or not the clock keeps ticking into the next hour will largely be up to the students we are now teaching. This is no small task they face. It may take an almost complete reinvention of how we live and a total revision of how we see the world and our fellow human beings.

So how do our students view these problems and what do they plan on doing about them? Some students are well aware of these issues and are seriously engaged in finding solutions. Unfortunately, the more common perception among students is that these problems are not theirs to solve. Technology will take care of the environmental problems and those in poverty should take care of themselves. “We” are rich because we are smart, hard-working, and have our head on straight. “They” are poor because they are lazy, not smart, and probably corrupt. In short, our system works. Their systems do not. There is little recognition that “our system” might in some ways depend on those of others and vice versa – that perhaps there is ultimately only one system after all, the world system.

It is almost impossible to say all that and keep the attention of those who don’t want to hear it. These are statements that are destined to always be preached to the choir and not far beyond. Fortunately these statements are really secondary to what we really need from our students: good questions that will drive them to understand more about our world and become active and responsible global citizens working to ensure our clock keeps ticking.

The World Simulation is designed to point the way to the questions, while only tentatively suggesting a few answers. It attempts to bring the entire world into one single room to give students a brief glimpse into how the world works, what the problems are, and how the conditions of one human group are profoundly dependent on the conditions of other human groups, even if those groups may be separated by vast oceans.

In this post I will lay out the basic rules of the simulation. Unfortunately I cannot reveal too much because the simulation relies heavily on an element of surprise and some students may find their way to read this.

The Basics

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The simulation is made up of 4 or 5 interaction rounds. Each interaction round runs for about 12 minutes followed by a 3 minute intermission allowing students to take account of what has occurred and to see if they can “feed themselves.” The main rule of the simulation is very simple: in order to survive, at the end of each round each student must have a piece of food (cereal) to eat. This will require either land (represented by a cereal box from which the student can get food) or money to buy food from others. If a student cannot eat at the end of the interaction, their death is marked as a “famine” by the “cultural historian” (see below) and the death decreases the total population of the culture by 5%. The student who starved must go to a nearby land as a refugee and hope for the best.

After the intermission, there is a 3 minute “news update” which I use to draw connections to real world events that are currently being simulated. The news is an audio-visual extravaganza complete with commercials advertising some of the new products being created by emerging imperialists.

At the beginning of the simulation, each group has at least 3 things: a box of cereal representing their “land,” envelopes to be opened at the beginning of each round (providing various challenges or instructions), and a collection of colored notecards representing various resources or goods that they can trade with others (these can represent many things depending on their ethnography, but some examples are white = salt, green = plant materials, orange = obsidian, and pink = shells).

All the props cost me just over $100. The most important props are boxes of cereal. There are three types of cereal in the simulation, each one of them profoundly symbolic. Fruit Loops represent a rich, varied, and nutritious diet. I’m aware of the irony of this, but the multiple colors are what set them apart. Cocoa Puffs represent luxury consumption goods such as cocoa, coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Cheerios represent large-scale monocrop cultivation. Of course, almost as soon as the simulation begins all of the cereals begin to take on different meanings for different people, which is exactly how it should be.

Each culture also has one sacred item, usually represented by a stuffed animal. The meanings they attach to this are up to them.

Populations are adjusted to represent the estimated population of the world in 1450 CE (about 400 million). The population automatically grows in each interaction, simulating the real world’s population growth so that we end the 2nd to last round with 6.2 billion people. (The last round is a special “future projection” round in which we try to solve all of the problems we have created.) Throughout the simulation the population of each group may increase or decrease based on famine, disease, or a shift to a new subsistence pattern (e.g. industrial agriculture would increase the “carrying capacity” and thereby increase the population).

Based on the ethnographies, I create mobility maps for each group showing where they are able to travel. Anybody who travels must carry a mobility map with them and cannot go beyond the boundaries that their mobility map sets for them.

I select 3-5 groups who seem to be on the verge of seeking other areas to explore or colonize. They are given full mobility to travel the entire world and a separate set of instructions with a box of materials that facilitate the colonization of other lands. Their materials include colored flags to mark their conquests, various tools and materials to facilitate production of luxury goods, money, and a special map that tells them where certain luxury goods will grow and where they will not (so Cocoa Puffs only grow in certain areas, Fruit Loops grow better in some areas than others, etc.). I can’t reveal those materials or instructions here because much of the simulation depends on an element of surprise that forces students to find solutions to emerging issues or capitalize on the opportunities given. Starting in the second round, these three groups are also required to find fossil fuels (represented by yellow notecards) to power their industrial revolution. They need to turn in one yellow card at the end of each round or they lose half of their hard power. There are not enough yellow cards in the room to last until the end of the last round (representing 100 years into the future).

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Those with money can participate in the world market exchange – a table in the front of the room where groups can exchange money, natural resources and hard power. Exchange rates change throughout the simulation to simulate technological developments, scarcity, and other factors.

Hard Power & the Rules of War

Each culture starts with a certain amount of hard power with which to launch attacks or protect themselves. Hard power is represented on small cards with numbers ranging from 0 to 1,000,000. Each culture has as many as 50 hard power cards with different numbers on them. The total amount of hard power a culture starts with depends on their population, technology, and other relevant cultural factors. When traveling a student should carry some of this hard power with them either for protection or conquest, however they have to strategize because taking too much depletes the amount of hard power others in the group can carry or could leave the homeland completely unprotected. Alliances can also be made, allowing one culture to draw on the hard power of the other and vice versa.

A battle begins when somebody from one culture challenges another. Both sides quickly decide how much hard power they want to use in the first battle and place these cards in their right hand. At the count of 3 each side shows the other the hard power they are holding in their right hand. The side with the most hard power wins the battle and gets all of the hard power expended by the other culture. The war is over when one side surrenders or is completely out of hard power. Terms of surrender are negotiable between the two warring parties but may include a right to hold on to some hard power, money, land rights, etc.

The winner occupies the land and then acts as a colonizer or occupier. The colonizer can tax the people, take the land, force people into labor, or force them to grow different crops.

Of course, this is where it gets interesting.

As I said before, I cannot reveal too much, but this is how the simulation has typically gone in the past 3 trials:

We start by arranging the tables in the room to match our world map as closely as possible:

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Emerging colonial powers almost immediately begin exploration and colonization and have colonized most of the world by the end of the second round.

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Colonizers often attempt to completely transform local economies. They tax or take the land (the box of Fruit Loops), forcing the local people to work for money to survive. This not only creates a cheap labor pool, it also creates a market for their exports (Cheerios). They use the cheap labor to manufacture luxury goods (Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loop necklaces).

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As the simulation proceeds, the colonies begin to acquire an emerging sense of nationalism and a growing population. Eventually they overthrow their colonizer, or the colonizer finds it too difficult to manage the colony. There are often several atrocities during this phase of the simulation that send refugees to other lands. Several new nation-states also form during this time.

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Even as processes of decolonization set people “free,” they still find that they are dependent on a global system of trade in which they are working for low wages and spending all of their money on goods exported from previous colonial centers. The world system of the real world maps onto our simulated world:

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Prior to the final round, students are asked to look around at the world they have created. We take a quick survey to determine how our numbers compare to those of the real world. Like the real world, over half of the people in our world are working for very little money and struggle to find enough food to eat. I announce that there are not enough yellow cards to power the fossil fuel economy through the next round. When they open their envelopes for the final round, they find more problems.

The last round often inspires valiant efforts to solve the world’s problems. Some students try to create expansive alliances with other low-wage laborers to drive wages hire. Others stage protests and beg for empathy from the colonizers.

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In our simulation, they have only 10 minutes to think through solutions – a trivial amount of time. The solutions we create are likewise trivial. But the questions the simulation inspires are not. And if students leave the simulation asking questions they didn’t ask before the simulation, or begin asking questions in different ways, there is no telling what might happen. Maybe it will inspire them to keep that clock ticking afterall.

14 thoughts on “World Simulation Part Two: The Basics

  1. This sounds like this would make a great multiplayer computer game. (I’m actually reminded of Civilization or its various knock offs when reading your description. However unlike these games, the simulation doesn’t seem assume fixed cultures or fixed nations. At least, based on the map.)

  2. thx. This was very concrete! I begin to figure it out now. My main understanding problem was connecting ballroom action with digital visualization, which I falsely had understood to be the basic element of the simulation.

  3. One of the criticisms of Dependency/World System theory is that it over emphasizes the Colonizer/Colonized relationship and doesn’t pay enough attention to the specific forms of exploitative power relationships that exist/emerge within the colony. Now, I love using books like Global Rift to teach the basics of World History from a dependency theory perspective before going into a Subaltern Studies critique, since I think it is important to fully understand dependency theory before one begins to go into the question of how global and local systems of power interrelate … but I’m wondering whether it is possible to discuss such questions within the scope of this game?

  4. I had the same reaction as AGSG — are you a former gamer, Mike (it’s okay, this is a safe space for such confessions)? And I wonder how much students’ readiness to get into this simulation has to do with experience with role-playing games where parameters are set out by cards.

    A question I now have is what kinds of lessons the students take home from the “stacked deck”: is there a way the World Sim can be played out with some sort of harmonious equality of distribution of goods, happiness, & relatively intact ecosystems and so forth as the outcome? Isn’t a danger inherent to the rule-setting that they learn a lesson about the inevitability of inequality? Would there be a way to construct the simulation (and this isn’t meant to make you pound your head against the wall, as obviously you’ve put a huge amount of work/thought into the simulation already) so that a kind of crap outcome for many societies isn’t a foregone conclusion of the exercise no matter what choices the simulators make?

  5. do there have to be battles? Couldn’t cultures interact in, um, another way? I mean, it seems like the rules are very much like classic rpg rules: now we have a fight! if a major part of the simulation is geared toward conflict, of course there will be winners and losers.

  6. Kerim, it sounds like we approach this subject in very similar ways. I did not get into this in this post, but the great thing about the simulation is that it actually does get into how global and local systems of power interrelate. For example, oftentimes a few members of a group will become the intermediaries between the colonizer and the local people. These intermediaries often become “proximate colonizers” (to use a term from Gewertz and Errington – former guest bloggers here) and recreate the colonizer/colonized power structure within the colony. In a more specific example in Spring 2005, several students fled to Evitarcul as refugees, an area that did not start off as a nation-state but formed one in the third round. The people of Evitarcul put the refugees to work doing the hard labor they had originally been required to do by the circumstances of their colonization. Evitarcul became a “semi-periphery” between the core and periphery.

    There are also 2 classes after the actual simulation to discuss the nuances of what occurred. We discuss the interrelationships of global and local systems of power during that time, using what occurred in the simulation as examples.

    For me, the primary value of the simulation is the questions it raises about how the world works. As far as I am concerned, the more the simulation is set up wrong, the better it is for learning. By inviting students to be part of the rule-making process, it forces all of us to ask questions like those Ozma just raised. “Do there have to be battles?” is not only a question we can ask about the way we set up the simulation, it is also a question about our world, both past and present.

    More to the point of Ozma’s questions, nothing in the rules of the simulation given to students dictates that battles must happen. Students are free to interact and interrelate with others in all kinds of ways beyond battling them. The hard power cards are only in the game in case people want to have a battle. Without them we would just be left to smackdown-style brawls, and that wouldn’t be good.

    Rereading my post, I can see where it would seem that battles form the core of the simulation. In actual practice they are a very small part. It is just one of the few things that I have to be very clear about in the rules. Other ways of interacting do not require cards or rules because they are up to the students to invent along the way.

    “Isn’t a danger inherent to the rule-setting that they learn a lesson about the inevitability of inequality?” is another great question – and a very difficult one. There is no doubt that we live in a world that is profoundly unequal. The simulation is attempting to discover the processes that have led to this inequality (both within and between different societies). If the simulation does not produce inequality, then somehow we missed something in our simulation.

    I don’t think the lesson is that inequality is inevitable though. The lesson is that while inequality is not the fault of any one single individual, or even one particular group of individuals, it is in a way the fault of every one of us who in our own small way is contributing to our current global structure of inequality. This structure is so big that it is invisible. The simulation tries to bring this structure into one room so we can catch a brief glimpse of it and then begin thinking about how we can start to change it.

  7. okay — so the point is to have the world come out the way it *did* come out, not to set up a “go” position and see what comes of it, come what may. It actually makes a good point about historical contingency — how hard it is to grasp intellectually as, though history may BE contingent as it happens, we only ever experience ONE of its possible outcomes.

  8. With regards to comparing this simulation to computer games, it reminds me of an idea for a MMORPG that I toyed with at one point.

    It seeks to leave the grand-scale Civilization-esque perspective behind and engage the individual player with her own ambitions and talents. My central problem was that it might simply not be fun enough to work as a computer game.

  9. I must admit I myself have always imagined a “Melanesia: The MMOG” which involved lots of pig exchange, gender segregation, and occasionaly hunting.

  10. I just posted one of the shorter “world history” videos from the world simulation on YouTube. It is summer vacation here in Kansas so I can safely post the video without worrying about students seeing the secrets and surprises in store for them in the next simulation. It will only be up for a couple weeks. Thanks again to all those who joined this conversation back in April. It helped to make the most recent World Simulation the most successful one yet! (Unfortunately the video from the most recent sim would not load on YouTube as it is over 20 minutes long. This is from a previous World Sim.)

  11. Dear Mike:
    Do you have any plans to publish instructions for the World Simulation for use in other Intro to Anthro classes. I teach Intro to Anthro and this sounds like a revolutionary curricullum! Really exciting stuff- I just want to know more, but I understand that you can’t post it here.
    justine lemos
    MA Dance
    MA Anthropology

  12. Hi Justine,
    Right now I’m thinking about what the best way to publish the material might be. I’m leaning towards the creation of a wiki where I would post all of my materials and then as more people try it they can post comments, revisions, and suggestions.
    There are lots of upsides to doing a wiki. The major downside is how it affects my tenure. If I publish an official manual with a textbook company, it counts as credit towards tenure. A wiki is less “countable”. Its just one example of how structures may need to change to take advantage of the collaborative possibilities of Web 2.0 technologies.

  13. Mike:
    Thank you for the prompt reply. Any way you distribute the information- I think it will be an extremely useful format for teaching. I think having an element of interaction between instructors using the format would be great. I especially like the idea of being able to post comments etc. Perhaps you can develop a structure that will result in both a published manuscript of “instructions” and a wiki site- so you get the tenure credit and the benefits of the web?
    I was also wondering if you have incorporated disease into the simulation? I would think it might be interesting if some populations had disease immunity and others could contract disease depending upon where they decided to explore or colonize?
    I just really like this format that has students ACTIVELY involved in the process of learning. It gives me so many great ideas…

  14. The course sounds fantastic. Now that you have run the class several times, do you do get the students to do comparisons of the outcomes between different classes? It could be a way to expand people’s thinking.

    Re: publishing the material

    One possibility would be an interdisciplinary web-journal such as Ecology and Society.

    You could write an article on the course and then link to a wiki. The journal is focussed on people nature interactions – and has published a number of articles on transciplinary courses, as well as using models as tools for learning.


    I suspect they would be very interested in your course.

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