For your first venture as an international trader, you load your ships with brandy and clothing and set sail—the year is 1800—for Suriname, on South America’s north coast, where you can sell your goods at a healthy profit. You plan to buy sugar there that you can later sell in St. Petersburg, Russia, again at a handsome profit. Unfortunately, your ships are stopped by French pirates soon after you leave New York, and they take all your brandy.
“The Game of Commerce” makes the realities of 19th century trade concrete for middle school students. Developed by senior EDC research associate Anne Shure of the Center for Educational Resources and Outreach, it continues an EDC tradition of using educational games to teach concepts in history and social studies.
In Games for Learning (1966), one in a series of occasional EDC essays, Clark Abt suggests that social studies offers fewer opportunities for hands-on learning than other subjects. Math, science, and even English offer more scope for experimentation. Students, he writes, “cannot learn they have made mistakes unless they can make mistakes—and making a mistake in history means making a wrong decision, not failing to remember a date.”
“The Game of Commerce” offers opportunities for errors and misjudgments, as well as mishaps caused by accidents, politics, and poor weather. Set during the years 1800-1808, it is played by two teams of three to four students. Each team is equipped with a sailing vessel and $35,000 in cash (nearly $40 million in current dollars), with which they can buy two loads of cargo, such as cotton, flour, furs, iron, silk, slaves, and tea, chosen by the team members. Teams also choose their destinations from New York—across the Atlantic to Europe and northern African, south around Cape Horn and across the Pacific—in quest of the best prices for their goods. History and accident, in the form of “Fate” cards, intrude with every turn a team takes. In addition to poor weather, privateers (pirates), and lack of wind, the ships are subject to the continuing political struggles between England and France.
“The Game of Commerce” is part of a curriculum entitled “Sentinels of Our Shores,” a National Park Service project in Gateway National Recreation Area, which encompasses parts of New York City and northern New Jersey. The game invites students to imagine that they too are part of New York’s commercial life. They learn what goods were economically important to the young nation, and how supply and demand influenced where goods could be bought and sold at a profit. In assessing what cargo to carry, and where, students also get a sense of the risks that sea captains and other international merchants faced.
Students could read about the role of New York City in American commerce, or a teacher could deliver a short lecture on trade in the early 19th century, but, as Abt notes, games engage students more readily. All children, regardless of academic achievement or standing, know how to play games; they are an essential way of learning about adult life. In educational games, the drama draws them in, and the concrete elements of the game—even down to handling the game tokens—keeps them engaged.
In designing “The Game of Commerce,” Shure drew on Peter Wolff’s The Game of Empire (1966), which is based on his observations of students playing a game as part of EDC’s history curriculum, From Subject to Citizen. Wolff pinpointed the challenges of designing a game that is both fun to play and historically realistic, she says. In the interest of keeping the game simple, for instance, “The Game of Commerce” omits some facets of 19th century trade, such as insurance and the slow pace of international communications.
It nevertheless has enough realism to keep students busy buying and selling. Like Wall Street brokers, they have to decide where to invest their money and then test their choices. “You see that on short runs you make a small profit and don’t have much risk, but on long runs you make a big profit and have a big risk, because of the ‘Fate’ cards,” explains Jeremy, a fifth grade student who has played “The Game of Commerce.” The cards, he says, make the game more “truthful. You could have a perfect cargo and something bad could happen.” In the business world, this is known as a cost-benefit analysis, and it is as relevant today as it was in 1800.
On a more subtle level, team-based games also teach social skills relevant to later life. Much adult decision-making is based less on abstract concepts than on interpersonal relationships, and games give full play to issues of collaboration, competition, and ethics. Within the compressed scope of a game, students experience the liabilities of apathy and uncontrolled aggression as well as the benefits of negotiation and cooperation. And success—winning—also has its appeal.
Originally published on January 1, 2002