Widget Boom Game Post-Mortem: The Downside of Competition

Ho Boy… did I make some students upset…

The last couple of days I had my students play Widget Boom Game by Adam Sanchez through Zinn Ed Project (pdf). This game has students break into 7 ‘companies’ competing to earn profits as the make widgets. The goal, from the student’s perspective, is to earn the most profit. The game was broken into 5 rounds with the profits and number of widgets displayed at the end of each round. For more details click the link above but simply put there was a lot of math and economic strategy. At the end of the game the wealthiest company wins. In my class this company was supposed to receive a big tube of discounted Valentines Day candy.

This was our display updated after each round. The trigger number was 1,000,000 widgets.

At least, I REALLY pushed the candy as the reward.

I had no intention of giving any candy. The goal, from the teacher’s perspective, is to demonstrate how overproduction occurred leading to the Great Depression. The catch in the game is that once a certain number of widgets are produced the ‘economy’ melts down, all of the companies go bankrupt, and NO ONE gets any candy. I played this game in 5 classes and didn’t give away a single piece of candy…. which is why several kids were furious with me. As these ‘winning companies’ were gloating about their massive profits I walked toward them with the candy but suddenly “remembered” that we needed to check the trigger number which would indicate the widget production number that would trigger the economic crisis. In every class, the combined number of widgets was at least double the trigger number. In 3 of the 5 classes the ‘winning’ team ALONE triggered the widget crisis of overproduction. It was a pretty fascinating experiment with some important gamification factors to consider.

The Limits of Competition

The thing about the Widget Boom Game was that the Crisis of Overproduction Trigger Number was not a secret! In the Role Play Outline and Rules of the Game handouts the possibility of the meltdown is explicity stated. In fact, the trigger number is unclear but the companies are told it will be between 1 and 3 million widgets. As the game goes on though the top profit earners either start to forget about the trigger number or think they can get close to the number without going over but forget that the other teams are thinking the same thing. The competition between the companies led to unintended consequences because the battle became more important than the outcome. This is an important lesson for classroom competitions and I have seen this play out with games like Kahoot and Quizlet. The learning becomes secondary to victory and can foster cheating, speed, and guessing.

How ‘The Rules’ Impact the Game.

The simple answer to the Widget Game Trigger problem is for students to collaborate. Of course the rules deny collaboration because the game is intended to simulate a Market Economy’s competition. As the ‘government’ I intentionally broke up any efforts at collusion because that would hurt ‘consumers and workers’. In reality collusion would have ruined the game and denied the students a learning experience. Creating games requires creating rules and obstacles to overcome. Creativity is not born from unlimited freedom but from the effort to overcome the limitations placed on the player by the rules if the game. How boring would basketball become if Zion Williamson could just pick up the ball and lower his shoulder into ever defender? The same applies in classroom games. The rules matter and have to be thoughtfully applied.

The Need for Building Classroom Trust

I would not have played this game earlier this year. I have had these students 2-3 days a week since August. These days have been spent talking to, joking with, and building up all of these students. I’m not perfect and I’m sure I make mistakes in building these relationships but on net I think I have built a pretty strong classroom climate. Getting to know students was important because I knew which students could handle having candy pulled out of their hands and which would need a bit more of an exit ramp when having a big tube of Reese’s Cups pulled away! My students, though, were able to quickly realize the point of the lesson and got over the disappointment quickly. The trust me enough to know I have their best interest at heart.

Final Thoughts

This was a fun but difficult lesson, for both the students and myself, but well worth it. One student told me this was a great way to learn about the overproduction crisis and that she will remember it forever. Nearly all the students were all able to articulate the major economic factors leading to the Great Depression in the discussion following the game. Most surprising to me was that no one spoiled the surprise. I expected some whispers from the 1st couple of classes to ruin the game on day two but every class was surprised. I guess thats the ppwer of being denied a reward… You don’t want anyone else to get it either…