THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 33, Fall 2007

William A. McEachern, Editor

Economics: The Video Game

According to a Pew study, 70% of students play video games and nearly one in three admits to playing them in class without the instructor's knowledge. Many popular computer games like Civilization and SimCity include challenges that are economic in nature. But the "serious-game" movement aims to deliver educational content in a game that harnesses students' natural competitiveness while keeping their interest.

Now a video game has been developed to fill a three-credit requirement in economics. The entire course is a video game that students play online. The game was created by over 30 faculty and staff from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's Department of Economics and the Division of Continual Learning. Called simply ECON201, the game is offered as an alternative to a traditional one-term course in microeconomic principles, which is also offered at UNCG. To play the game and get course credit, students must register. In-state students pay $280 for the course; out-of-state visiting students pay $480 (though transferring that credit to one's own institution may not be seamless).

Let me make clear that I have not paid the $480 to register and thus have not played the game. Even if I had played it, I might be able to say something about the economics but not how the game compares to the level of play students have grown accustomed to. My descriptions and comments are based on information available online about ECON201 at http://econ201.uncg.edu/dcl/econ201/ (the site offers an opportunity to request more information via email, which I did, but I've received nothing yet). The game was tested in the spring of 2006 and has been offered since then. I have no idea how the course has worked out so far except that it is being offered again this fall.

Still, I think video games could represent a significant development in economic education. Could a well-thought-out and engaging video game teach economics more efficiently than more traditional teaching methods? Professor Jeff Sarbaum, a UNCG economist who provided content, plans to compare the value added from the game with that from the traditional course. I will report on any findings in the future. In the meantime, here's some background and a few comments on this game.

An alien craft has crash-landed on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The head of the aliens was killed in the crash, so the student, who is next in the chain-of-command in this role-playing game, must take over. Thus the student assumes the role of an alien from Sarbonia, a distant world that knows no scarcity. The student, as commander, must now learn how to cope with scarcity to help crew members survive and perhaps return to their world.

In one of the scenarios early in the game, the aliens must decide how to allocate their people in order to gather food and water for survival. In another scenario, the aliens come across a second group of aliens that survived the crash, and learn how to trade. The promotional material claims the course covers all the micro principles topics and is also interdisciplinary. For example, students must make ethical decisions as they play the game. In one scenario a disease breaks out and they must decide who is to be saved. They are also introduced to historical examples of how Earth faced similar problems in the past.

The game has eight levels to be covered in an eight-week term. Each focuses on a fundamental economic concept. To gauge how well students are doing, they take multiple-choice tests as they move through the different levels of the game. If the score is "passing," the student can move to the next level or play more to improve the score at the current level. Each level has an end-date that locks in the score. Questions are randomized, reducing the chances that the student can simply memorize answers.

That's the setup. So the Sarbonians (named after Professor Sarbaum) come from an alien world that knows no scarcity. How can that be? Since there is a chain-of-command on the ship, there must be a scarcity of power. They obviously don't live forever since some were killed in the crash, so time itself must be scarce. If there were a world that knows no scarcity, I would be interested in learning how and why. I'm not sure it's a good idea to begin with such a hypothetical as a point of departure.

The beauty of a market economy is that nobody really needs to know anything about supply or demand curves in order for a market to work fairly well. Likewise, we don't really need to know anything about gravity to observe Newton's principles in action. The world-without-scarcity setup seems like a lot of extra work to teach students many things that already come naturally. I would prefer a game that begins with the natural economist in all of us rather than teaching economics as a foreign language that first must be mastered to be useful.

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