World Simulation Rules and Objectives
by Michael Wesch. Reposted from Savage Minds, April 9th 2006.

Using the now classic metaphor, if we imagine all of human evolution to have occurred in the past hour, the last 550 years that the World Simulation attempts to simulate is no more than a few tenths of a second. While these final tenths have brought us tremendous technological advances, they have also brought us unparalleled global inequality, the most deadly wars of all time, and a precarious environmental situation. Our population is more than 10 times what it was just a few short tenths of a second ago. The richest 225 humans on earth have more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion people combined and the richest 20% of humans on earth account for 86% of consumption and on average make over $25,000/year. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion people make less than $1/day and over half the world makes less than $2/day. Humans produce more than enough food to feed everyone in the world, but at least 800 million people are starving. In 2004, worldwide military expenditures were $950 billion. In that same year, Worldwatch estimated that it would cost just $12 billion for reproductive health care for all women, $19 billion for the elimination of hunger and malnutrition, $10 billion for clean drinking water for all, and $13 billion to immunize every child in the world from common major diseases. In these final few tenths of a second we have created a global economy running on nonrenewable fossil fuels, all of which will be gone within the next second on our imaginary clock. The use of these fuels has increased carbon dioxide levels by almost 30%, nitrous oxide by about 15%, and concentrations of methane have more than doubled - all of which contribute to a rise in global temperature leading to rising sea levels, expanding deserts, and more intense storms. Perhaps most dramatic, it is in these final tenths of a second on our metaphorical clock that we human beings have attained the ability to literally stop the clock and annihilate ourselves. Whether or not the clock keeps ticking into the next hour will largely be up to the students we are now teaching. This is no small task they face. It may take an almost complete reinvention of how we live and a total revision of how we see the world and our fellow human beings.

So how do our students view these problems and what do they plan on doing about them? Some students are well aware of these issues and are seriously engaged in finding solutions. Unfortunately, the more common perception among students is that these problems are not theirs to solve. Technology will take care of the environmental problems and those in poverty should take care of themselves. "We" are rich because we are smart, hard-working, and have our head on straight. "They" are poor because they are lazy, not smart, and probably corrupt. In short, our system works. Their systems do not. There is little recognition that "our system" might in some ways depend on those of others and vice versa - that perhaps there is ultimately only one system after all, the world system.

It is almost impossible to say all that and keep the attention of those who don't want to hear it. These are statements that are destined to always be preached to the choir and not far beyond. Fortunately these statements are really secondary to what we really need from our students: good questions that will drive them to understand more about our world and become active and responsible global citizens working to ensure our clock keeps ticking.

The World Simulation is designed to point the way to the questions, while only tentatively suggesting a few answers. It attempts to bring the entire world into one single room to give students a brief glimpse into how the world works, what the problems are, and how the conditions of one human group are profoundly dependent on the conditions of other human groups, even if those groups may be separated by vast oceans.

In this post I will lay out the basic rules of the simulation. Unfortunately I cannot reveal too much because the simulation relies heavily on an element of surprise and some students may find their way to read this.

The Basics

World Simulation Supplies

The simulation is made up of 4 or 5 interaction rounds. Each interaction round runs for about 12 minutes followed by a 3 minute intermission allowing students to take account of what has occurred and to see if they can "feed themselves." The main rule of the simulation is very simple: in order to survive, at the end of each round each student must have a piece of food (cereal) to eat. This will require either land (represented by a cereal box from which the student can get food) or money to buy food from others. If a student cannot eat at the end of the interaction, their death is marked as a "famine" by the "cultural historian" (see below) and the death decreases the total population of the culture by 5%. The student who starved must go to a nearby land as a refugee and hope for the best.

After the intermission, there is a 3 minute "news update" which I use to draw connections to real world events that are currently being simulated. The news is an audio-visual extravaganza complete with commercials advertising some of the new products being created by emerging imperialists.

At the beginning of the simulation, each group has at least 3 things: a box of cereal representing their "land," envelopes to be opened at the beginning of each round (providing various challenges or instructions), and a collection of colored notecards representing various resources or goods that they can trade with others (these can represent many things depending on their ethnography, but some examples are white = salt, green = plant materials, orange = obsidian, and pink = shells).

All the props cost me just over $100. The most important props are boxes of cereal. There are three types of cereal in the simulation, each one of them profoundly symbolic. Fruit Loops represent a rich, varied, and nutritious diet. I'm aware of the irony of this, but the multiple colors are what set them apart. Cocoa Puffs represent luxury consumption goods such as cocoa, coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Cheerios represent large-scale monocrop cultivation. Of course, almost as soon as the simulation begins all of the cereals begin to take on different meanings for different people, which is exactly how it should be.

Each culture also has one sacred item, usually represented by a stuffed animal. The meanings they attach to this are up to them.

Populations are adjusted to represent the estimated population of the world in 1450 CE (about 400 million). The population automatically grows in each interaction, simulating the real world's population growth so that we end the 2nd to last round with 6.2 billion people. (The last round is a special "future projection" round in which we try to solve all of the problems we have created.) Throughout the simulation the population of each group may increase or decrease based on famine, disease, or a shift to a new subsistence pattern (e.g. industrial agriculture would increase the "carrying capacity" and thereby increase the population).

Based on the ethnographies, I create mobility maps for each group showing where they are able to travel. Anybody who travels must carry a mobility map with them and cannot go beyond the boundaries that their mobility map sets for them.

I select 3-5 groups who seem to be on the verge of seeking other areas to explore or colonize. They are given full mobility to travel the entire world and a separate set of instructions with a box of materials that facilitate the colonization of other lands. Their materials include colored flags to mark their conquests, various tools and materials to facilitate production of luxury goods, money, and a special map that tells them where certain luxury goods will grow and where they will not (so Cocoa Puffs only grow in certain areas, Fruit Loops grow better in some areas than others, etc.). I can't reveal those materials or instructions here because much of the simulation depends on an element of surprise that forces students to find solutions to emerging issues or capitalize on the opportunities given. Starting in the second round, these three groups are also required to find fossil fuels (represented by yellow notecards) to power their industrial revolution. They need to turn in one yellow card at the end of each round or they lose half of their hard power. There are not enough yellow cards in the room to last until the end of the last round (representing 100 years into the future).
World Market

Those with money can participate in the world market exchange - a table in the front of the room where groups can exchange money, natural resources and hard power. Exchange rates change throughout the simulation to simulate technological developments, scarcity, and other factors.

Hard Power & the Rules of War

Each culture starts with a certain amount of hard power with which to launch attacks or protect themselves. Hard power is represented on small cards with numbers ranging from 0 to 1,000,000. Each culture has as many as 50 hard power cards with different numbers on them. The total amount of hard power a culture starts with depends on their population, technology, and other relevant cultural factors. When traveling a student should carry some of this hard power with them either for protection or conquest, however they have to strategize because taking too much depletes the amount of hard power others in the group can carry or could leave the homeland completely unprotected. Alliances can also be made, allowing one culture to draw on the hard power of the other and vice versa.

A battle begins when somebody from one culture challenges another. Both sides quickly decide how much hard power they want to use in the first battle and place these cards in their right hand. At the count of 3 each side shows the other the hard power they are holding in their right hand. The side with the most hard power wins the battle and gets all of the hard power expended by the other culture. The war is over when one side surrenders or is completely out of hard power. Terms of surrender are negotiable between the two warring parties but may include a right to hold on to some hard power, money, land rights, etc.

The winner occupies the land and then acts as a colonizer or occupier. The colonizer can tax the people, take the land, force people into labor, or force them to grow different crops.

Of course, this is where it gets interesting.

As I said before, I cannot reveal too much, but this is how the simulation has typically gone in the past 3 trials:

We start by arranging the tables in the room to match our world map as closely as possible:


Emerging colonial powers almost immediately begin exploration and colonization and have colonized most of the world by the end of the second round.


Colonizers often attempt to completely transform local economies. They tax or take the land (the box of Fruit Loops), forcing the local people to work for money to survive. This not only creates a cheap labor pool, it also creates a market for their exports (Cheerios). They use the cheap labor to manufacture luxury goods (Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loop necklaces).

from Core to Periphery

As the simulation proceeds, the colonies begin to acquire an emerging sense of nationalism and a growing population. Eventually they overthrow their colonizer, or the colonizer finds it too difficult to manage the colony. There are often several atrocities during this phase of the simulation that send refugees to other lands. Several new nation-states also form during this time.

New States

Even as processes of decolonization set people "free," they still find that they are dependent on a global system of trade in which they are working for low wages and spending all of their money on goods exported from previous colonial centers. The world system of the real world maps onto our simulated world:

World System Map

Prior to the final round, students are asked to look around at the world they have created. We take a quick survey to determine how our numbers compare to those of the real world. Like the real world, over half of the people in our world are working for very little money and struggle to find enough food to eat. I announce that there are not enough yellow cards to power the fossil fuel economy through the next round. When they open their envelopes for the final round, they find more problems.

The last round often inspires valiant efforts to solve the world's problems. Some students try to create expansive alliances with other low-wage laborers to drive wages hire. Others stage protests and beg for empathy from the colonizers.


In our simulation, they have only 10 minutes to think through solutions - a trivial amount of time. The solutions we create are likewise trivial. But the questions the simulation inspires are not. And if students leave the simulation asking questions they didn't ask before the simulation, or begin asking questions in different ways, there is no telling what might happen. Maybe it will inspire them to keep that clock ticking afterall.

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