A Dynamic Game Helps Illustrate International Trade

Game play is a perfect way to illustrate the complex, and often unpredictable, dimensions of international trade. This was evident in recent sessions of Nathaniel Shaw’s International Economics class. Nathaniel was inspired by a trade game used by a Scottish economic forum to assess a person’s potential in economics and trading. Intrigued by the activity, he took the core elements and offered up an exciting and fun variation for his students as a class activity.

For the game, students are grouped together into three countries and each group has varied resources. “Watching teams form alliances, strategize, and leverage economic principles is truly something amazing to watch,” enthuses Nathaniel.

Each team is given an envelope to start, and the goal of the game is to make as much money as possible using the paper materials contained within by trading with the other groups, and by trading in objects they create out of paper with a central “world bank.”

“Prior to the game, we talked a lot about trade, the global economy, specialization, and so on. This game was an opportunity to take all of that and apply it in order to simulate how trade relations work in the real world,” says junior William C. He adds that elements like “global market change and innovation within separate countries” made the activity more realistic and challenging.

For others, the activity was as involved and entertaining as popular games like Monopoly.

“I can actually imagine that I am in control of a country’s economy and the decisions I make will decide how successful this economy will be,” shares senior Zachary R. “It’s also fun in that it’s a competition where a winner will be crowned, but the most successful groups will have leveraged collaboration with their competitors. There aren’t many competitions where collaboration between competitors is encouraged.”

To trade paper shapes for money, students had to stick to very strict guidance as to how the shapes would be cut. If they were a bit off, they would not be accepted as trades for money with the bank. A “banker” made the decision about whether the shapes met the expected standard. The “bankers” making these judgments were either Upper School’s MaryPat Radeka or Jean Pennacchio, both visibly enjoying their part in the game.

Just like in real life, value would constantly fluctuate during the game. Nathaniel would introduce different variables based on choices he made in real-time by observing the flow and dynamics between the groups. In one class, negotiation and trading was continuous and busy. In another, the groups quietly contemplated their next moves and how to gain money and advantage.

In discussions, the class explored issues of “comparative advantage, access to resources, new technology, and economic inequality,” Nathaniel says. He adds that several queries guided them: “is it fair that one country owns most of the wealth? What did it feel like to be the country always working from behind?” And, they explored whether “developed countries help developing countries to achieve a more equitable situation for all?”

“What makes it challenging is that the game has variables that are constantly changing, and we have no control over them,” Zachary reflects. “My group suffered from other groups being given exclusive advantages that often changed the direction of the game. It took a lot of thought to adapt to these changes in a way that ultimately benefited our group.”

A key takeaway for William was that “when dealing with business, never keep all of your eggs in one basket or make big investments and bank on certain things going your way. You always have to have back-up plans and things to fall back on if one route doesn’t work out.”

The game preoccupied students even outside of the actual game. They thought about it after school, they argued over it at lunch, or could be heard excitedly discussing it as they walked to class. Even Nathaniel found himself considering it long after the school day had ended, contemplating what new obstacles or changes he might introduce during the next class.

This was truly a memorable way to learn and teach, and it demonstrates how learning at Moses Brown is a shared and highly collaborative experience, one that inspires well beyond classrooms.