Rock, Paper, Scissors...ECONOMICS!

*A quick note to begin this post. I read a post from another teacher here about a similar game to represent the three main types of economic systems we encounter in modern history - capitalism, socialism and communism. The vitriol that came in the comments section was a little disturbing. 

I have never subscribed to the notion that learning about a topic is anything like believing a topic to be true or right. Neither have I heard any argument, ever, that what America has done and continues to do economically is the most effective, most sustainable or most moral path of action. I do, however, teach in order to encourage dialogue, discussion and above all knowledgeable opinions. I see nothing wrong with the study of socialism or communism. I see everything wrong with encouraging our youth to be fearful rather than knowledgeable about other forms of government and economic systems.

I write this post aware of the vitriol out there with the hope that any readers will jump in with thoughtful and respectful comments.


I was telling some of my students that I had put out a tweet about the game that we were playing today and that I had been reported as part of the Red Scare. They had no idea what the Red Scare was. *sigh* I gave them the 30 second run down and told them to pay attention next year in American History class.

Socialism. Making people say
ridiculous things for years!
The goal is simple: teach students about economic systems. Americans are most familiar with capitalism, specifically free-market capitalism. Socialism freaks a lot of people out even though we have socialist policies in our country. Communism, as has been said countless times, is perfect in theory but always gets messed up in practice. A brilliant professor of mine always referred to the classic communist leaders - Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler* and a few others - as the Great Bastards of History.

*I know, Germany under Hitler was a fascist regime. But if it smells like a duck, acts like a duck and quacks like a duck? Call it what you like, but I imagine living in fascist Germany and Communist Russia felt pretty similar for the average citizen. 

The method is also simple and one that is a past-time of mind: rock, paper, scissors! The game makes for a nice example because the students already know all of the rules. The only thing left to do is to tweak the rounds of the game so that something is taught about economic systems with each change.

Here's how it goes...

The first step is to teach quickly about currency. I do not teach an economics class, but the world turns around money so I work it in whenever I can. Students need to get that anything can be a currency and that different currencies can be traded. Pulling up a google currency calculator is a good real-world connection as is telling my story of a £9 Burger King meal I had in London in 2008 that, when turned in US Dollars at the time, became nearly an $18 meal. I also like to use shoes as an example of a currency. "What would you give me for a pair of new Jordans?" It's not a far leap for students to see that we value basketball shoes (and other shoes) for their fashion and "coolness". As a society, we have decided that little green pieces of paper and coins have set values. We can trade these items for goods or services, such as a McChicken or a car wash.

Once the idea of a currency is established, we find something that we can put value on in the classroom. Candy is an easy, albeit potentially expensive choice. M&Ms specifically are good to use. I chose extra credit points (a small amount) as our currency. Students were given 8 pieces of paper, with each piece of paper given a specific amount of extra credit. Part of why I chose this is it provided a relatively easy way to cheat if students wanted. You'll see how that gets worked in later.

Introductory Round Rules:
A few of my students getting
into RPS.
Use this round to get all the questions about currency and basic RPS rules out of the way. Make it fun and a little chaotic so that you can establish your procedure for getting the class' attention back to you. A favorite of mine is loudly saying "...and you're back with me in 3...2...1..." By this time of year, I have this procedure is pretty solid and worked for this activity.
  1. Timer is set for 4 minutes. 
  2. Each player gets 8 pieces of paper worth something of value, such as extra credit or candy.
  3. One win earns the player one piece of paper. No negotiating (this round).
  4.  There is a one paper tax for a student if he/she chooses to not play for 30 consecutive seconds. 
  5. Students caught cheating or lying will be charged a 3 paper tax.
Capitalism Rules:
Capitalism should encourage the student to be a risk-taker to gain wealth. This round is set up to have incentive for taking a chance in order to become rich. There are few regulations from the government. You will find that some students will push the envelope and try to cheat to become more wealthy. In this round, I choose to be lenient in enforcing these rules so that we could discuss loose government regulation in a purely capitalist society.
  1. Timer is set for 4 minutes
  2. Each player gets 8 pieces of paper worth something of value, such as extra credit or candy.
  3. Students can negotiate the price of the interaction so that a win could earn more than one paper.
  4. There is a one paper tax for a student if he/she chooses to not play for 15 consecutive seconds.
  5. Students caught cheating or lying will be charged a 3 paper tax.
This should be the most familiar system for American students. There will likely be frustration that some of the students are cheating or being dishonest to which you'll need to respond that it is impossible for the government to keep everyone honest when it collects so few papers in taxation. Encourage the students to keep themselves honest by refusing to play with dishonest students. Shout out to Adam Smith!

After each capitalism round, spend some time observing how the class can be divided into rich, poor or middle class groups. Discuss the reasons for class separation in capitalism and whether or not RPS involves skill and luck, or just luck. Are the results fair? I was fascinated at how the "rich" students said this round was fair and most others said it was unfair. 

Socialism Rules:
This round of the game will teach students that in a socialist society, all members of the society are taken care of in the end through taxing and redistribution of wealth. Although this is an activity on economic systems at its root, this is a great opportunity to discuss why governments act in certain ways. You'll see how the strictness of government rules increases from what we saw in the capitalist round.
  1. Timer is set for 4 minutes
  2. Each player gets 8 pieces of paper worth something of value, such as extra credit or candy.
  3. Students can still negotiate the price of the interaction
  4. There is no longer a tax for inactivity. Students may choose to not play and keep their 8 papers.
  5. Students caught cheating or lying will be charged a 5 paper tax
More tense competition
Many students will catch on quickly that socialism, in theory, leads to greater equality. As an economic and social system, the rules of this round will establish that taxation rates and government involvement is high. Those who struggled to succeed at RPS will get some help in the form of redistribution of the paper that was collected by the government through penalties and end-of-round-taxation. Those who did well will wonder why exactly they are getting punished for their success.

Discussion this round can center around the equality of the society and the strong role of the government. Rules in this round are much more strict. Why would the government act in this way in a socialist society? Is it fair for the "rich" students to be taxed heavily while the "poor" students receive wealth at the end? A big discussion topic here is also motivation - if this round were repeated over and over, would students have any incentive to get better at RPS if that were possible? 

Communism Rules:
Like in the real world, communism and socialism are very similar systems. There are only a few small changes to the rules. The more significant changes come in the reflection at the end.
  1. Timer is set for 4 minutes
  2. Each player gets 8 pieces of paper worth something of value, such as extra credit or candy.
  3. Students cannot negotiate the price of the interaction. Each win earns one paper.
  4. Students MAY NOT be inactive. Any student inactive for 60 consecutive seconds gives up all of their paper and is removed from the game.
  5. Students caught cheating or lying will be removed from the game and will lose all of their paper.
I like to focus in this round on the strictness of the rules while emphasizing that if we could just "do it right" that it would all work out really well for everyone and we could just all be equal. I also stress that an individual has to be valuable to the society, which is why they must keep playing the game at all times. This is the round where I try to get a bit emotional, as is often what leaders of communist nations do as well. As is often said, communism is great in theory and awful in reality. I have also tried simulating government coercion (i.e. torture) by asking students to identify cheaters and threatening detentions or write ups if they don't give answers. Needless to say, this lead to really fascinating discussion. 

Have you ever tried something like this in your class? Do you have a suggestion for how to make the game a more realistic demonstration of these three economic system? 

Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

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