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Energy Games People Play

Posted by Arjendu on June 5, 2015

Over the past year and a half, when I’ve taught about energy (during the month-long visit to Ashoka’s Young India Fellowship last year, the first year seminar this fall, and now the Environmental Physics class this spring), I’ve given students the option of doing a final project that included a ‘creating educational materials’ option. In this category, some students have chosen to work on an ‘energy game’ (this term 3 board games were created).

The projects and results have been pretty striking. I’m starting to realize that there is a lot more value to creating such games than I had assumed. A little more tweaking, and this is should be a permanent part of my repertoire for certain kind of courses.

Here is an attempt to summarize why: These are typically based off some standard commercial board game like Monopoly or ‘Game of Life’ or other such games. There are games where players are trying to maximize energy production given finite resources (the person who gets to 15 energy points wins in one game), other games where they are developers for a new habitation area and trying to figure out how they should source energy while paying fines for ‘pollution’ and trying to maximize their financial profit, etc, etc.

There are many cool things I am getting from the exercises, not the least of which are some fun energy games to play (for the public or elementary/middle school children). A (retrospectively obvious) effect is that the students go through a fairly sophisticated discussion of *what* the objective of the game should be (more energy, more green, more money), learn how to put numbers (at least relative to each other) on the various energy sources according to cost, productivity, emissions, and see how the rules they create (and the values they put in) affect outcomes. What’s also entertaining is seeing how uncertainty in chance events that happen as the game develops affects the story.

For example, teams have used the games to learn that certain strategies help more than others (diversifying your energy production portfolio so that you don’t get trapped by chance events or political shifts for example; or that you should probably buy cheap and dirty first and then buy ‘expensive and clean’ if cost and profit maximization is prioritized, etc, etc) . That is, they are learning to think about the economics and policy issues from the energy landscape and are able to *model* it without using complicated differential equations etc (creating an agent-based/game-non-theoretic-but-fun model, in short) but all the while it’s a board game that people can play with. This sloppy thinking about models etc is probably going to annoy the heck out of my social science friends and family, but it will have to suffice for now.

I am excited about this. Students have suggested creating an app version of their games as part of their ‘future plans’. That’s one of the many directions to go with this …

And now, back to grading.

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