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The International Trade Game


This game is a version of the World Trade Game developed by the Third World development charity Action Aid. I have amended it to be suitable for students beginning a course in economics, economic development or international trade, although it could be used with students studying related subjects.

I also use it as part of a year-12 open day at UWE in early July for students who have just completed AS Economics and are thinking of studying Economics at university.

The game is fun to play; it needs no computing facilities and uses only very basic equipment, such as scissors, pencils, rulers and paper; preparing the materials for the game usually takes about 20-30 minutes and, except for paper, all the materials used for the game can be reused. You need only one member of staff for up to 240 students; all the necessary instructions can be given to the participants within 2 minutes; and there are many economic 'lessons' that can be drawn from the game.

Overview of the game

Students are divided into teams, each of which acts as a separate 'country', with between two and ten students in each team. There are five or six countries in a game. A game thus can be played with between 10 and 60 students. More than one game can be played simultaneously, if the room is big enough, but there must be no interaction between the games.

Countries compete against each other to 'manufacture' paper shapes (circles, triangles, rectangles, etc.) and sell them to an international commodity market trader at posted prices, which vary with supply and demand. The objective for each country is to make as much money as possible.

There are three types of country in a game:

  • two rich industrialised countries;
  • one or two middle-income countries;
  • two low-income countries.

Students are not told this; they find out as they play the game.

The game requires a large flat room, with loose tables and chairs.

Room layout
Game layout

Only one lecturer is required as game leader even if more than one game is being played, but one additional person is required to act as a 'commodity trader' in each game. This person could be a student. It is also useful to have one or two 'observers' for each game. These too can be students. Experienced game leaders could handle up to four simultaneous games (i.e. up to 240 students) if the room is appropriate. The game takes between 45 and 90 minutes to play. This is followed by scoring, reporting by students and adjudication by the lecturer, who will probably want to draw various economic lessons from the game. This all lasts a further 20-45 minutes. Students find the game enjoyable and rapidly enter into its spirit.

Preparing for the game

You will need to do four things.

If you are playing two or more games (or 'worlds') simultaneously, you will need to separate them with a line of tables or some other barrier, as students must not cross from one game to another.

Starting off the game

Tell the students to leave all bags and any equipment (e.g. paper or pens) at the front and then to sit themselves around the clusters of tables. Distribute the envelopes to each of the countries.

The game requires minimal, but clear instructions immediately that students have sat round the tables and before they have opened their envelopes. The dynamic of the game requires that there is no preamble explaining the purpose of the game and certainly no summary from the lecturer explaining what the game is supposed to illustrate. It is important for the students to work out what they should do.

Instructions given out at the start of the game

Once the instructions are understood, it is time for the lecturer to tell students how long they have to play the game (usually 45 minutes) and to announce the start of manufacturing.

During the game

At the beginning of the game there will be a lot of confusion and students will have many questions, such as 'Where can I get scissors?', 'Why have we only got paper?', 'Can we buy things off other countries?', 'Can we combine with other countries?', 'Can we have a loan?' Resist all temptation to answer these questions. Just repeat what you said at the beginning. After a minute or two they should begin moving around the room and trading, but the initiative should come from them, not you. The rich countries (A1 and A2) will probably begin making shapes, as they have all the materials and equipment that they need, but they will soon run out of raw materials and will probably try to buy some paper from other groups.

Role of Observers. Use the observers to report back to you on what is going on. This will help to give you information for the debrief session at the end. For example, get them to find out what is happening to the scissors - the one crucial implement that has to be used for all shapes and is possessed initially by only two countries. Do the rich countries form a scissors cartel? Do they sell one pair to another country; or do they hire them out? Observers should watch how groups negotiate the prices of paper and other materials. They should note the formation and operation of any alliances and deals and any cheating that takes place. Observers should also report to you any malpractice, such as stealing other countries' paper, implements or shapes. It is up to you to decide whether you should ignore the problem, thereby encouraging countries to do their own policing, or whether you should impose a punishment, such as suspending them from making shapes for 5 minutes, confiscating certain materials or fining them.

Role of commodity trader. The trader must be careful in measuring the shapes and reject any that have not been cut out. Alternatively, if they have been torn carefully against a ruler, or are only slightly too large or small, a reduced price could be given. You could leave this to the trader to decide, or you could agree a policy in advance. The trader must keep a close eye on the money to prevent students stealing it, preferably keeping it out of their reach. Shapes that have been sold should be put into an envelope or box, again out of reach of students.

Traders should not normally give loans, unless you want to build this in as a feature of the game, in which case you should decide in advance what interest rate to charge - probably a high rate, such as 50 per cent. If loans are allowed, the trader should keep a record of them. In such cases, it might be a good idea to allocate an assistant to the trader. It is easiest for loans not to be repaid, but at the end of the game, when money is totalled, the trader will simply announce how much has to be deducted (outstanding loan plus interest) from each team.

Your role as game leader. You will need to keep in regular contact with the trader. Find out which shapes are being sold in large quantities (probably the triangles and rectangles) and which are hardly being sold at all (probably the circles and the protractor-sized semi-circles). Then blow the whistle and announce that, owing to the forces of demand and supply, the prices of certain shapes have changed. You can choose how much to change the prices, but a dramatic change stimulates more interest and provides a stronger focus for later discussion. For example, when the students are debriefed after they have finished the game, it is easier to refer to the importance of price elasticity of demand and price elasticity of supply when the price changes have been dramatic. For similar reasons, it is better to change prices very infrequently. The price of particular shapes will also affect the value of particular tools. If circles go up in price, this will affect the demand for compasses. This relationship can be identified later in the debriefing.

Extra dimensions can be introduced into the game by simulating the emergence of new technology, new raw materials or new equipment. It is important to make sure that the observers are primed to focus upon the reactions of groups to each change. The debrief will depend heavily on the quality of the information they are able to provide.

The development of new technology can be simulated by giving about 8 coloured small sticky shapes to one of the low-income countries, without indicating the possible use of those shapes. The game leader then goes to one (or both) of the rich or middle-income countries and informs them that the value of a standard shape is trebled if it has a coloured shape attached to it and that one of the low-income countries possesses coloured shapes. This scenario could also simulate the discovery of raw materials in a developing country, which are then developed by a multinational corporation investing in the country and bringing its expertise and technology with it.

You could also increase the stock of capital by selling a further pair scissors by auction. This will need to be done relatively early on in the game and you will need to announce your intention 5 or 10 minutes before you do so. Although the poor countries would dearly like to buy a pair, one of the rich countries is more likely to be successful at the auction. It might then hire out the scissors to a poor country.

As the game progresses, paper will rapidly run out. Trade in paper is likely to take place, with the price of paper rising to meet its value in terms of the shapes that can be made from it. The game can be prolonged by introducing more paper (simulating the discovery of new raw materials). You can do this in two ways. First, you may give some to one or both of the low-income countries. The second way is to sell more paper. A good way of doing this is to hold a paper auction, where you sell about 10 sheets, one at a time. Announce that in 5 minutes' time you will be holding an auction and ask for one representative from each country to attend. The two issues are:

  • How will the price at the auction reflect the value of shapes that can be made from it?
  • Will the bidders collude to drive down the price?

You can draw lessons from this in the debrief session at the end.

Ending the game

The students should be given a 5-minute warning of when the game will end. There will probably be a flurry of activity as students rush to make shapes with their remaining paper and bring those shapes to the commodity trader. When the game ends, the game leader should ask all the students to return to their countries and to answer three questions:

  • What was in their envelopes when they opened them?
  • What implements do they currently own?
  • How much money do they have?

Collating results and debriefing students

A whiteboard or flip chart can be used to record the results. The answer to the first of the questions (what was in the envelopes?) is known and it is helpful if this information has already been recorded on the flip chart or whiteboard. The answers to the other two questions can be gathered quickly so that the groups can easily compare their experience with that of other groups.

It can be helpful to organise the debriefing into three stages:

Stage 1. Draw students' attention to similarities and differences between the results from different groups. Did the groups that started with the same resources perform in a similar way? How much of the difference between the groups was due to strategies pursued and how much to the initial endowment? It is also appropriate at this stage to pose questions that prompt students to describe how they felt about the game as it developed. For example, the tutor could ask students in the different types of country how they felt when they opened their envelopes.

Some further suggestions for questions to ask in this first stage

Stage 2. The second stage consists of asking the students to indicate ways in which they believe the game simulates the real world and ways in which they believe it is unrealistic. The capacity for simulations to affect students' thinking depends a great deal on whether they believe that the world is reflected in the simulation. It is quite usual for some students to dismiss as unrealistic aspects of a simulation that the lecturer is hoping to use to illustrate a theoretical idea.

One of the strengths of this game is that the inherent inequality in resource endowment that gives the game its distinctive character is hard to contest as a reflection of the real world economy. Students are more likely to question the way in which the game simulates the opportunities that these endowments create for different countries and how those opportunities are exploited.

Stage 3. In the third stage of the debriefing, the tutor aims to help students to compare the way they have analysed their experience in the game with the insights derived from economic ideas and the evidence that economists have assembled. This part of the debrief should be focused on those ideas that have been selected in the desired learning outcomes for the activity. The debriefing naturally begins as a large discussion group led by the tutor. However, if this format is maintained for more than 10-15 minutes, some students will get restless and there will be pressure for the tutor to end the session.

Given that the debriefing represents the tutor's main opportunity to develop students' thinking, it is important to find ways of avoiding a short and rather low-level discussion. The debriefing session needs to be planned as carefully as the activity. Typically this will involve asking students to discuss a couple of questions and arguments (during stages 2 and 3) within their 'country' groups. In stage 3, when the focus is on economic ideas and evidence, it can be useful to have a small piece of evidence for each group to consider before returning to the whole-group discussion.

Learning outcomes

The International Trade Game has a wide range of potential learning outcomes, and with suitable focus, especially during the process of debriefing, a number of economic topics might be identified and developed more fully. These topics range from elementary trade theory to issues of imperfect information and even debates surrounding international inequality and first and third world relations.

A comprehensive list of economic topics that can be discussed

As well as subject-related learning outcomes, the International Trade Game helps develop a number of key skills. Group working and interacting with others are among the most significant. The process of negotiating is also a very strong element within this game.


(Update January 2017) We are grateful to Giampiero M. Gallo at NYU Florence for making and sharing this video about the game.

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