Home Page




Other Pages:
Key Words

Home Page
Lecture Notes

Site Map
Utility Documents
Useful Links


A sociological review and analysis

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to the memory of John McBride

Training Handout

A simulaton game that teaches about inequality


During the late sixties, western Canada, like many places in the Western World, was experiencing its own cultural revolution (hippies, drugs, yippies, anti establishment, long hair, patchouli oil and colourful clothing). Like most things Canadian, it tended to be more polite, more reticent, and less exuberant than it was in many places of the USA. Eh? A loose association of activists were looking for ways to open people's eyes to the unfairness and inequalities of the established ways of doing things. It was a little naïve to believe that all that was needed was to demonstrate those inequities to gather supporters to a movement that would break them down. It was an innocent era.

Among the loose association of activists were many Americans who chose to reside in Canada as a means of avoiding military service in Vietnam. This was a main vehicle for underground communication between western Canada and the USA.

Part of the "non-hippie" protest of the sixties included young people who went to poor countries as "volunteers" to offer skilled assistance at local salaries. Cuso, for example, was founded six weeks before the formation of the American Peace Corps in 1961, by the amalgamation of three volunteer overseas programmes organised by the three main universities in Canada. (The big difference between them was that Cuso salaries were paid mainly by the hosts, Cuso being an NGO, while US Peace Corps volunteers were American civil servants, PC being a branch of the US bureaucracy). By the late sixties, hundreds if not thousands of these had returned to Canada, many of them radicalised by the experience of living in poor countries, and newly aware that the answer was not aid but rather a more fair treatment in international trade and finance.

The loose association coalesced into a group which named itself "The Fraser Group" which was to cock-a-snook at the "Fraser Institute," a regional far right wing, think tank. This cynicism in naming was extended to their news letter which was called "Bias," to demonstrate that all publications were biased, but this group thought itself honest enough to say so.

Someone brought a mimeo sheet with a game which said it was produced by a political science commune at Berkeley. It was in the public domain. It was eagerly taken up by several activists, and started being used as an educational tool in schools, among church groups, local voluntary associations and any group that appeared to have potential players. The activists had found a tool for the eye opening that they wanted to undertake.

In the greater Vancouver, BC, area, the most enthusiastic and active organiser of the games was John McBride, a Vancouver school teacher.

The game did not come fully developed, and activists who had been facilitators for running the games compared notes, made modifications and tested out variations. There was no one "orthodox" game among the many variations that were being played.


The game was run by a facilitator and, optimally, three assistants. Non-participating observers were discouraged or forbidden.

The game was described on the mimeo sheet as a three tiered political system where participants experienced some of the differing characteristics within each of the three levels (groups/classes). It was found that it worked best with thirty participants, plus or minus a half dozen. It worked best when spread over a two or three hour period. The first part was composed of trading sessions of five or six minutes each, interspersed by solidarity sessions of four to five minutes each. After about four or five of each of these, the group must be debriefed by the facilitator, which may take an hour or more. The debriefing session is essential because the trading and solidarity sessions produce a large amount of energy, mostly based upon frustration and outrage, and that energy needs to be channelled into educational benefits and interpretation of the experience.

There were three prizes, on public display, which were to be awarded to the three individuals with the highest scores.

Players were given a package of chips, which were made out of school construction paper or cardboard, each colour representing a different value. The chips represented currency for the game. Each package of chips was handed out randomly to players. Some packages, approximately a third, were worth a high amount, others medium and others a small amount of currency. Players were told to chose any chip, hide it, and approach someone else who might appear to be willing to trade. No talking was allowed, unless the two players hold hands, as in a handshake, during which they could negotiate a trade. They were allowed to talk until a trade is negotiated, and then were not permitted to talk after they broke off holding hands. Players could not trade the same colour chip for the same colour chip.

At the end of the trading session, the players were grouped into plenary, and all their names were listed on the board, next to their score, consisting of the sum of the currency chips they each hold. The top third of scores became squares, the bottom third became triangles, and the middle group became circles.

The blue squares, yellow circles and red triangles were also made out of school construction paper or cardboard, and worn around the neck by means of a string looped through a hole in each. (The colour and shape symbols had meanings to activists in the sixties). A ceremony was held to place the square, circle or triangle (class identification necklace) on each participant.

Early on, it became too obvious that a "mistake" had been made that unequal currency chips must be traded. Participants became suspicious. After discussions with participants, and among the loose association of activists, it was agreed that there would be an advantage in accepting a chip of lower value than the one offered. If there were two or more of the same value, there would be a bonus in value. That made it a more acceptable rule that traded chips had to be of different values.

The solidarity session followed each trading session. The players were grouped into their shape-colour groups and given four minutes to unanimously choose only one of their number to receive a bonus currency chip. The size of the bonus chip was large enough to push the recipient up into the colour-shape group/class above (triangle to circle; circle to square). At the end of the session, all the names and scores on the board were reviewed. Any individuals who had increased their scores enough to move up to a higher shape-colour group/class, were ceremoniously presented with their new identification necklace. A player that became too low in his class was quietly moved downward and given the necklace of the class lower.


In terms of the stated (more apparent than real) objectives of winning the prizes, the game was not fair. Once each player was put in a specific colour/shape group or class, it was very unlikely that she or he would be able to move out of it. The fanfare of ceremoniously awarding a different necklace to those who moved up, was designed to disguise that fact, and make it look as if there were social mobility.

The fact that most of the players spent most of their time holding hands and talking with potential partners in trade, gave the illusion that there was a lot of trading going on. There was not. Each player felt that he or she was not personally trading but that there was much trading going on, on either side. There was much talking.

Remember that the sixties was an era of the highest rate of social mobility in the western world, if measured, for example, by the rate of persons going to university whose parents did not go to university. Young people wanted and expected to do better than their parents. The game (like life itself) was a great disappointment to individuals with those values and aspirations. Not just anyone could grow up to become Prime Minister.

This slow rate of upwards mobility was most apparent (and important) to players in the red triangles, and least apparent to the blue squares. That difference in perception was most important to the facilitator and to be used for raising political awareness during the debriefing session in the second half of the game.

The facilitator had to be prepared to pro-actively handle accusations of unfairness during the debriefing. Those accusations would often come as a surprise to members of the blue squares, and they were supposed hear them during the debriefing. The lesson to be learned was that those persons closest to the top are the ones most in favour of the rules, those nearest the bottom who believe they have less of a stake in the official system. During the debriefing, the facilitator had to explain that the purpose of the game was not to win the prizes, but to learn and understand some of the features of inequality.

The facilitator needed also to handle accusations of manipulation. The frustrations and feelings of unfairness, especially among the red triangles, needed to be channelled into learning about society and its power arrangements. All learning situations, to some extent, are manipulations. Society is unfair. People are born into different classes, different ethnic groups, different income categories, without choice. The ones who are most the subjects of discrimination, the ones who face poverty, the ones in the bottom classes, are the ones most aware of the unfairness of society. The comfortable middle class is not so aware. The ones at the top have the most to lose if the rules are changed.

The original distribution of currency chips was random. That is like the situations we find ourselves at birth; we do not choose our parents. Once the currency chips were randomly distributed, the players found themselves in an upper, middle or lower class, and it was probable that they would remain their for the duration of the game.

Frustration among the red triangles was quickly elevated, and sometimes resulted in a "coup" or "rebellion." Sometimes the three prizes were "liberated" and confiscated by the red triangles. That we considered an opportune time to suspend the trading and solidarity sessions, and move to the second part of the game, the debriefing.

Society, in western Canada in the sixties, was (as it is today) unfair. There was bigotry and discrimination against native Indians (now called "First Nations"), Chinese, South Asians, welfare recipients, beggars, and the few persons of African descent. The middle class smugly assumed there was no discrimination; that it happened only in the southern USA, but not here. For those persons in such groups, and for the poor, they well were aware of the unfairness of society, but it took a game like Starpower to demonstrate it to the smug comfortable majority.

It also demonstrated the kinds of strata that were to be found in caste India or apartheid South Africa; and between rich and poor nations.

With a skilled and erudite facilitator, the debriefing session became the means through which the players could express their frustrations and experiences, then relate them to the political realities of their own society and to the world at large.


The game was not played exactly the same way every time. The rules were certainly not written in stone. Variations were tried; facilitators compared notes, and useful changes were added by others.

Early on, the lengths of times for the trading sessions were ten to fifteen minutes. This dragged the game on, and they were shortened. As they approached five minutes, the game moved along better.

Similarly with the solidarity sessions moving from ten to four minutes.

At first there was no bonus for having more than one currency chip of the same colour, but that was added to the scoring to give an excuse for the rule that equal colours could not be traded.

Some facilitators gave a new set of chips to everyone after one set of trading and solidarity sessions. The packages of chips were still grouped into the three levels, although they were randomly unequal within the boundaries. Other facilitators just let the players continue on with the chips they had.

The prizes were unique at first, but later became items that could be distributed to all during the debriefing, such as cases of beer, large cakes, or boxes of cookies or muffins. (Beer was not used in schools).

It was discovered that players who had played before (even many who had only read the mimeo sheet) did not play as enthusiastically as those who had never heard of the game. A rule was added that anyone who had played before could not play again. Such persons were recruited as assistant facilitators. Enthusiasm (for winning the prizes) was needed as an energy source in the game. If you are reading this, you should be disqualified as a player, but could be a good facilitator or assistant.

Some enthusiasts decided to make a huge game with over a hundred students from across Canada for two weeks. A grant was obtained (by activists mainly from the Toronto area) from CIDA, and permission from the army to use the huge outdoor terrain at Shylo in southern Manitoba, a reserve usually used for military exercises. The participants became residents of five "nations" with a large tent each and huge variations in comfort, the richest nation having a fridge, luxury deserts, sleeping cots and far more food than needed, while the poorest nation had bare survival.

Trade items encouraged the nations to interact. Many adults worked as ongoing facilitators, and they included a doctor, two nurses, a psychologist, a nutritionist, and several teachers, all of whom were briefed to make sure no one hurt themselves (facilitators had oranges, for example, to give to residents of the poorest nation to ensure they had some nutrition). All the facilitators carried citizen band walky-talky radio transceivers, and could congregate wherever they were needed. (This confused several truckers on southern Manitoba and northern North Dakota highways who were trying to figure out who were "Big Pumpkin," "Spook" and other amusing names given to the nations in the game, or to codes for certain conditions or instructions).

The results were spectacular, the players of the richest nations began acting like fascists, and the rebellions organizing thefts of supplies were generated by the poor nations. It became too intense, however, and the game had to be called after one week, instead of two, and many hours of debriefing were needed on the next day.

It was ironical that the young man who became the president of the richest "nation" (Big Pumplin), ended up acting like a totalitarian dictator, much to his later embarrassment because, as he explained during the debriefing, he had been a socialist activist in real life. Nevertheless, he had got totally "sucked in" by the game

The game worked. Not as a fair game for competing for the prizes, but as an eye opener for those comfortably unaware or uncaring about inequities in society. One important thing learned was that it happened much more quickly that the planners had earlier predicted. Another thing learned was the importance of the facilitator using the frustration as an energy source during the debriefing to explain the purpose of the game, and to draw parallels in society. All necessary time needed to be employed to reduce the frustration or discontent, and convert that to an effective learning resource.


By 1971, I (this author) had to end my participant observation. I won a Commonwealth scholarship paid by the Ghana government to go to the University of Ghana to do my PhD in development sociology. Thus ended my membership in the Fraser Group and my work as co-editor of Bias. From Ghana I went to many locations, mostly in Africa and Asia; I briefly visited Vancouver from time to time, but never lived there again.

The game apparently stopped being played throughout western Canada. The flower children at Haight and Ashbury were replaced by drug addicts and hookers, and their parasites, the pimps and dealers. Starpower was subverted by corporate America, and was given a copyright in 1993, becoming a tool of profit (at $200 a game), the property of other pimps and dealers, instead of an awareness raising tool in the public domain by naive and idealistic sixties activists.

I heard from friends that the big game held on the military land in southern Manitoba was repeated, but I have no details. There was no widespread use of the internet then, and going overseas then meant being cut off from easy and rapid communications.

The ideal of the game, as a means of raising political awareness, remains, however, and can still be used by other enthusiasts in other countries, other cultures and other times. There is enough information above to make your own props and set it up yourseves. Done right, it is very effective.




1. Do the players know the value of the chips before they start trading?


Yes. We put the chip values up on the blackboard.


2. During the negotiations/hand holding part, what do they talk about, i.e. do they tell each other what they have


They are permitted to talk about anything they want, but only if they are holding hands. They may choose to reveal or not reveal what chips they have. (As the game progresses, the higher class often talk about better rules for their own advantage, the middle group talks a lot about nothing, and the lower group members hatch plots to steal or "liberate" the prize).


3. Could you explain further the advantage of accepting a chip of lower value?


Two of a kind would be worth more than the sum of their face values. For example, a purple chip alone might be worth ten, but two of them would be worth forty of fifty. Three chips would be worth even more than the sum of their face values. A player might be willing to give up a chip of a higher face value if it added to the number of chips that were the same.

The important thing is that this does not really allow for a lot of social climbing, but each player gets an impression from the noise of all the talk that there is a lot of trading going on around them. There is not.


4. Also, I very vaguely seem to recall that the group that had the most chips after each trading session was allowed to make/revise the trading rules for the next trading session. Does this sound familiar?


Yes. This rule was added later. There is a session when each group would sit in its own circle, and the lower groups could elect one person to be sent up to the next higher group (by allocating a group value), and the person with the lowest score in the higher group had to go to a lower group. At that time the highest group could make new rules, and were given a minute to announce them to the plenary.

This is an oversight of mine. I think maybe (not immediately) I should Edit the paper so these questions are somehow answered in the paper.


Once again, I thank you for your help and patience in answering what must sound like really stupid questions.


As an educator, like you, I have a philosophy that says, "No question is a stupid question."




1. Before the first chip-trading begins, what are the players told about the purpose of the trading?


Get the highest score to win the prize.


2. If they're told that it's to get as many high value chips (or points) as possible, why would the highest value group (the squares?) want to trade at all?


The prize does not go to the group; it goes to the individual with the highest score.

It is the lowest, not the highest, group that realises first that the trading is useless.


3. Could you give me some examples of the new rules that would be made by the "highest" group?


All gold (or highest value chips) must be surrendered to members of the highest group (eg blue squares).

Everybody must pay a tax to the highest group, to pay for their "care taking" of the whole group of players.

Changes in values of the chips or getting more than one of a kind (usually in ways that benefit the highest group to the disadvantage of the others).

No females allowed into the highest group.


Why would the groups elect a person to move either up or down?

That is, on what basis would they do so?


The whole group is told to do so. The lowest group has the most solidarity, and usually does. The middle group usually argues too long about whom to choose, and loses the opportunity. In the upper and middle group, it must be the person with the lowest score who goes down.


4. At what point do you stop the trading sessions?


Trading sessions are alternated with the other sessions. Usually four or five are enough. A good facilitator can sense the level of anxiety, frustration and/or anger, and stop it when it is sufficient to use for discussion. About half the time the lowest group steals the prize or causes a revolt, and that is a good time to stop the trading sessions.


Where are they now?

Warren Allmand, Rocky Amos, Bergen Amren, Dorothy Carr, Mike Casey, Doug Coward, Gordon Fish, Barry Flemming, Linda Freeman, J. Fuccilo, Carole Gagnon, Marion Geros, Nigel Hawkesworth, Mary Krug, E. Lai, Kavi Levitt, John McBride. Don Morrison, Tom Morton, Bob Sallery, Murray Sallis, Mark Schlingerman, Michael Sinclair, Linda Smith, Paul Sweezy, Hendryk Urbanski, John Wilcox. Susanne Wise, P.A. Wright.


* nb: The sun is a star.

If you copy text from this site, please acknowledge the author(s)
and link it back to www.cec.vcn.bc.ca
This site is hosted by the Vancouver Community Network (VCN)

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.02.02

 Home page