often enter our classrooms convinced that the battles of the Civil
Rights Era solved the issue of race in America. They are generally
unacquainted with the long history of race in the United States and
almost universally underestimate the structural forces which carry
racial disparities into their new century. As sociologists and teachers,
it is our responsibility to tell that story and explain those forces.
Our new challenge is: How do we teach students the extent of racism in
America when, from their point of view, the problem of the color-line
has been solved?
One option is to use a
game. Sociologists have used games or simulations to spark the
sociological imagination (Dorn, 1989; Jessup, 2001; Fisher, 2008 ), to stimulate
critical thinking (Pence 2009), and to introduce social stratification (Ender,
& Kinney, 1999). When students from relatively privileged backgrounds
“experience” a temporary bout of unfairness in a simulated game, it
creates the opportunity to change their perspective (Coghlan & Huggins,
2004; Haddad & Lieberman, 2002). The injustice of the situation, if
directly connected to broader theory, can lessen a student’s social
distance from marginalized groups. A game may help a student to
understand some of the previously inexplicable attitudes and behaviors
of actors on either side of a power relationship. Also, as this paper
demonstrates, a properly constructed simulation can give the student a
sense of the structural nature and lasting legacy of racial
discrimination—a fuller sense of the “history and biography” of race in
the United States (Mills, 1959).
The great advantage of a
game is that it is a completely controlled environment—there are no
unexplained variables. In fairness to all the players, all rules are
explicitly stated at the outset of game play and apply to all players
equally (Waldner & Kinney, 1999). Ordinarily, in a competitive game this
assumption of fairness supports an ideology of individualism.
However, a pedagogical
game is concerned with learning, not winning. In order to disentangle a
complicated issue, the instructor may purposefully introduce inequality
into an otherwise “just” world. Again, because all rules are explicit
(even unfair ones), the problem exists in the game without confounding
effects. This simplification allows students to easily focus on the
nature and development of the problem. By extension, it is hoped that
the game encourages students to reassess similar problems in the real
Use of Pedagogical Games
Dorn (1989) identifies
multiple criteria for games or simulations to be effective in the
classroom as pedagogical tools. He argues the games must: reflect
reality; motivate students through "experience"; develop awareness of
personal values through moral and ethical implications of the game;
connect abstract concepts with concrete experiences; create a shared
experience from which the students can draw; offer a form of debriefing
to both address emotional issues and to connect theory to experiences.
In the technique I describe below, I try to incorporate these ideas with
Straus’ (1986) emphasis on simplicity for in-class games.
In teaching and
learning, the goal of simulation is the “experience” itself. Jessup
(2001) argues that simulation should be the “experiential anchor for the
elaboration of conceptual tools” (p.108). Therefore, this game is
created to offer a chance for relatively privileged students to
experience the unfairness of structural inequality. After temporary
exposure to an analog of racial discrimination, students with no prior
familiarity of racial discrimination will have a deeper understanding of
the effects of racism on many levels.
Pedagogical games are
used to challenge our assumptions about how the world works (Waldner &
Kinney, 1999). For example, the basic assumption of competitive games is
fairness. This assumes that the world is fair (i.e., a meritocracy) and
that individual effort or talent is the main factor in success (i.e., an
ideology of individualism akin to Ross’ (1977) fundamental attribution
error). In competitive games therefore, groups are treated equally and
the best players win. But a pedagogical game may challenge the
assumption of fairness directly by having structural inequality built
into the game. The experience of a good player losing an unfair game
creates cognitive dissonance—that cognitive dissonance is our teaching
moment. I assume that students as game players can easily identify games
that are “unfair” based on unequal outcomes for equivalent behavior. As
a pedagogical tool, I want it to be relatively easy for them to spot the
explicit rules which cause the inequality.
There are two main
limitations to the use of pedagogical games in the classroom. First, as
with any analog, the challenge of external validity is ever present. By
definition, a simulation is a simplification of a complex phenomenon. If
the essential nature of the phenomenon is lost in the simplification,
then the results of the simulation cannot be usefully extended back to
the outside world. We should be aware that the game world in which we
play is created especially to illustrate a point—and therefore is biased
by its nature. For example, the reality of race relations in the United
States is much more complicated that any one-hour game. Second, games
are not value free (Breznia, 1996). Those who make the rules also make
assumptions about how the world works. Students who have strong views on
a topic may show resistance to games that overtly contradict their
positions. The games may have little teaching value if the students feel
that their views are not acknowledged. Although this critique is
important, one of the strengths of simulations is that it temporarily
suspends previous experience. Students are exposed to new sets of values
surreptitiously through the play of the game. After the game, students
can openly decide to consider or ignore the new sets of values.
Issues in Teaching Race in the 21st
Our students are
confident that they are already familiar with racism before they enter
the classroom. Students from the Millennial Generation feel they have
been raised in an environment of racial tolerance—from the observance of
Black History Month to the election of the first black American
President. They can easily identify discriminatory practices and have
been sensitized to the inappropriateness of prejudicial attitudes.
Although we have made significant progress in terms of race in the U.S.
in the last few decades—our students often presume that we have
successfully solved the problem completely. A small amount of progress
is claimed as evidence of a victory. Their understanding of racism is
often limited to a historical treatment of the traditional American
racism of the Civil Rights Era. That is, their understanding is forty
In fact, attitudes
towards race and ethnicity have changed dramatically over the last forty
years (Krysan, 2008). A new type of prejudice—colorblind racism (Sears &
Henry, 2003; Bonilla-Silva, 2006)—has stepped in to fill the void left
by the decrease in direct institutional discrimination. This new type of
racism is rarely detected by students because of its emphasis on
individual behavior and its dismissal of structural forces. Part of the
insidious nature of colorblind racism is that it invites students to
ignorance: to ignore the past; to ignore the effect of race-based
structures; to ignore plight of their fellow Americans. There is little
incentive to revisit the battles of the past.
How do we teach
something our students can’t see? In addition to highlighting the
characteristics of colorblind racism and the legacy of discrimination in
our lectures and readings, I propose that we give our students a chance
to “experience” these phenomena directly in a simulated environment. A
deeper, experiential understanding of these concepts will help our
students understand the arguments of race-specific and race-neutral
policies; the opinions on reparations; the lasting effects of
discrimination; and the subtle characteristics of colorblind racism.
Unfortunately, the use
of games as pedagogical tools is not common in classes covering race and
ethnicity (for a recent exception, see Harlow, 2009). Games are much
more common in courses or lectures which focus on economic inequality (Breznia,
1996; Dorn, 1989; Jessup, 2001; Waldner & Kinney, 1999). In such
classes, the games are often used to challenge the assumptions of
meritocracy and the ideology of individualism. Sociology courses which
focus on race and ethnicity also must confront notions of meritocracy
and individualism. There are, however, distinct historic and economic
structures which have created and perpetuated racial barriers. One
difficult challenge for teachers of race and ethnicity is to create
games which confront meritocracy and individualism, but at the same time
recreate the oppressive social structure which dominates race relations.
Example from the Classroom
I have employed an
abbreviated version of Monopoly to highlight issues of race and
ethnicity in eight different classes over the last four years. I have
used the game in classes of over one hundred students and in classes as
small as ten. Because Monopoly is limited in the number of
players, and because as a pedagogical tool I am not that interested in
the strategy or game play of the students, I randomly select a small
group of students (3-5) to take the roles as players at the front of the
room while the rest of the students watch. I use Monopoly as a
familiar construct, a safe place where everyone knows the rules. Then, I
change the rules.
Monopoly is based
on the assumption of equality of opportunity. This is the first rule I
will break in order to highlight theoretical concepts related to race.
Since the rules of games are usually explicit, my structural inequality
will be explicit as well.
To set the scene for the
game, I put a slide of the familiar game board on the screen for visual
reference. I arrange my panel of players in front of the class. I am a
player as well. We all introduce ourselves to the class, and I take note
of the name of the last student in line (for my example here, let us
assume her name is “Lydia”).
To illustrate this
teaching strategy, I use italicized text for the role of the professor
below; comments are in normal text.
everyone familiar with the Monopoly rule “Pass Go, Collect $200”?
Everyone circles the board; everyone passes ‘Go’; everyone gets $200.
However, anyone who is named ‘Lydia’ does not get any money as they pass
And thus, I have handily
created “name-based” discrimination through the concept of direct
institutional racism (since this is explicitly stated as a rule). Then,
we quickly begin the abbreviated game. I give a narrative to the class
to speed things along:
around once; pass ‘Go’; collect $200. Jenny goes around once; passes
‘Go’; collects $200. Mark goes around once; passes ‘Go’; collects $200.
Lydia goes around once; passes ‘Go’; but does not collect $200. Is
everyone clear how this game works? Okay, now we are going to go around
the board 349 times. How much money does each player have?
This question takes a
little time to answer. I do not give the answer, so students take out
their phones and start trying to do the math. I wait until more than one
student arrives at the correct answer of $0 for Lydia, $69,800 for
everyone else. In my role as professor, I act shocked at the outcome. I
announce it’s time to adjust the rules for a more equitable game:
Okay, clearly this is not working out for everyone [Professor gives a
scolding look at Lydia for creating this new problem]. So now we’ll
change the rule: everyone who passes ‘Go’ gets $200. The next turn is
our 350th. On that turn Lydia will get $200. But so will all
of the other players. How much money will each player have then?
It usually takes a
little less time to answer this math question. The class informs us that
Lydia now has $200 and everyone else has $70,000.
There now Lydia, don’t you feel better this time around? This time we
have equality, right?
Lydia is typically
pretty upset at this point. She has been singled out, through no fault
of her own, and is being forced to lose this game in front of everyone.
All she wants is a chance. The preceding question gives her an
opportunity to share her concerns and needs—she needs more money before
she will feel equal in this game.
[Professor adopts more patronizing tone] Now wait a minute! We just
changed the rules to accommodate you. We, as the other players, didn’t
have to do that. It doesn’t even benefit us because now there is one
more person to buy stuff on the board. We didn’t have to do that, but we
did. And now you want more money? Where does this money come from?
Surely you don’t want to take the hard earned money of the other
players. Or is it that you want more money for each time you pass ‘Go’?
A law that says, “People named Lydia get $300 each time they pass ‘Go’.”
We just gave you $200, now you want more?
Of course, as the
instructor, I am not too harsh here. I do not want to hurt my students
to make a point. But cognitive dissonance is always uncomfortable. I
offer a compromise:
don’t you just hold on for a few years? Maybe 25 times around the board
and you’ll feel better. Students, how much money would each player have
after 375 rotations?
Once again I give the
students time to do the math. Not surprisingly, Lydia does not feel
equal with $5,000 compared with $75,000 for everyone else.
At this point I
terminate our abbreviated game and debrief each of the student players.
Their emotions and experiences about this game are much stronger than
their experiences in my more normal lecture classes. There is much more
nervous laughter and more lively discussion in these classes than in my
classes without simulations.
Application of Monopoly to Race
In the class discussion
which follows the game, I refer back to the interaction between Lydia
and myself. That interaction, while not carefully scripted, is filled
with detailed questions to illuminate specific theoretical concepts. I
am confident my more advanced students of race would recognize these
concepts the first time through. But for students from various majors in
an introductory-level sociology course, these concepts crystallize
during the discussion.
First, I ask the
students to tell me what type of discrimination was used to create the
inequality between the Lydias and the rest of the players. After some
discussion, we arrive at direct institutional racism—an explicitly
divisive legal system that is supported by a multitude of individual
majority actors. This is “old school” racism and the students easily
Colorblind racism on the
other hand is more difficult for them to spot. After some discussion of
the game, however, the classes discover that colorblind racism starts
when direct racism is stopped and equality is declared prematurely. Some
discussions have touched on the fact that the so-called equality is
declared by the majority, not the minority. Then, other characteristics
of colorblind racism are illuminated (Sears & Henry, 2003): the minority
seems impatient with new rules; the minority seems stuck on past
problems; the minority might get too much in an effort to equalize; and
that the differences will just disappear if the majority ignores the
past. Each of these characteristics is discussed at length with a new
understanding of the positions on either side of the Lydia-divide. The
important point for emphasis here is that, these are feelings and
motivations of the majority. It is the winners who feel this way,
not necessarily the losers.
This short game of
Monopoly also highlights the legacy of discrimination as well. Why
circle the board 349 times? Because the first slave arrived from Africa
in 1619, but blacks and whites were not legally allowed to live in the
same neighborhoods until 1968—around 349 years (Feagin & Feagin, 1990).
But wait. What if our former Supreme Court Justice was right? That we
would no longer be subject to the legacy of race after the passage of
time; say 25 more years (Krueger, Rothstein & Turner, 2005). The
absurdity of her opinion is apparent in the face of 375 iterations
around the board; separate 350 times; equal 25 times.
Usually the students
have a passing knowledge of reparations and affirmative action—two
radical solutions which most students have never considered. But in the
game, these two solutions to the “Lydia problem” are not radical at all.
A dry definition of “reparations” comes alive for most students when
they realize that this solution was mentioned in our game when Lydia was
so far behind in funds and the other players were so far ahead. Why not
share? Another solution, affirmative action, was also mentioned in our
short game when we discussed giving Lydia extra income from circling the
board until she reaches parity in wealth. In the simulation, it seems
like a reasonable, efficient way to fix a structural problem. It allows
everyone to continue playing and ultimately equalizes the playing field.
Why does this seem so radical outside the classroom?
Classes on race and
ethnic relations are an open field for the use of simulations and
pedagogical games. The advantages include giving students an
“experience” with discrimination; helps students connect abstract theory
with concrete experience; and it gives students a shared set of
experiences from which they can directly draw to make informed, ethical
decisions regarding race.
Using a game allows for
a not-so-delicate treatment of a normally taboo subject. Addressing the
“Lydia problem” is much easier for students to talk about than directly
talking about the race problem in America. Pedagogical games can
challenge individualistic assumptions and demonstrate the lasting
effects of discrimination in a direct, but non-threatening way. The
temporary and artificial nature of games lets the students join in
without fear of ostracism. Particularly for relatively privileged
students from the Millennial Generation, this game highlights some of
the structural components of racial discrimination which would otherwise
be hidden from view.
Also, games can be used
to highlight many sociological concepts at once. I usually have the game
after I have introduced all of the concepts in a previous
lecture. Even then, my best students will usually fail to spot one or
more of the concepts I am covering during the game. This demonstrates
the complicated nature of race issues—that even in a simplified
environment, there are many things happening at the same time.
In conclusion, I have
found the discussions in these classes to be much better informed and
richer—and more likely to be connected to personal experience. Students
continue to refer to the concepts highlighted in the game throughout the
remaining weeks of the semester. I invite other teachers to incorporate
this approach and other games into their teaching preparations.
I would encourage two
future developments to extend this technique. First, to add to the
number of concepts introduced using Monopoly. For example, we
have not addressed racial gaps in prison, occupations, or education.
Also, residential segregation is a topic uniquely geared toward the
Monopoly board. A second development would be the application of
aspects of other traditional games to race concepts; such as chess (see
Schelling’s 1971 classic simulation of the role of preferences in racial
segregation using the chessboard and the moves of the pieces as an
analog to residential mobility); or card games.
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