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Illustrating International Trade in the Classroom: How Current World Events Can Facilitate Ten Rounds of Active Learning


This game is a learning exercise for use in economics courses to teach international trade and GDP. The game allows students to experience international trade through a scenario-environment consisting of ten trading sessions. Students learn about GDP, the benefits of trade and the impact world events can have on trade outcomes. The game can also be used to foster discussion on scarcity, opportunity costs, geopolitical events and comparative advantage. Four versions of the game are provided allowing for classroom flexibility including a list of discussion questions and instructor guide.


  • Handout sheet (Appendix B copied and cut into individual squares for game cards)
  • Facilitator instructions handout (Appendix A)
  • Rules of the Game (Figure 3)
  • Ten Trading Sessions (Figure 4)
  • Debrief Questions (Figure 5)
  • White board/markers
  • A bell, noise maker such as a fog horn, percussion maker to start and end each trading session.
  • A timer or download an internet stopwatch that could be displayed on the computer screen

Game objectives

  • Students will be able to understand the definition and components of Gross National Product (GDP)
  • Students will be able to understand the importance of exports and imports.
  • Students will understand scarcity and opportunity costs.
  • Students will understand the importance of international trade in our society.
  • Students will understand the effect geopolitical and other events can have on economies.
  • Students will understand the concept of comparative advantage.
  • Students will begin to understand the concept of sustainability.

The timeframe for the class session can vary depending on how the game is played. Four suggested versions of the game are highlighted in Figure 2 below.

  • The first version of the game is a select version where the instructor selects five trading sessions of choice to play.
  • The second version is played continuously with all ten trading sessions taking place, followed by a debrief session – taking place in one class period.
  • The third version of the game can be placed with the debrief after each trading period – taking place in one class period.
  • The fourth version of the game could be played weekly over the course of a semester-long course with a trading session played each week followed by the debrief. Instructors can use the format of the game to adjust the trading sessions according to course outlines and objectives. For example, macroeconomics textbooks may have a chapter outline such as: Chapter 1 – Scarcity and Opportunity Costs, Chapter 2 – Supply & Demand, chapter 3 – Measuring National Output, and so forth. The trading sessions below could be adapted to correspond to chapters in the textbook being used and it would be suggested to use Version 4 of the game to sync up to each chapter being taught and learning objectives.

Figure 2. Four game versions

Version 1

The instructor selects the five trading rounds he/she wants to focus on for the course. The game is played continuously through all five trading sessions. This requires 15 minutes to introduce the game and discuss the rules. Each trading session lasts 5 minutes and there are 5 trading sessions which requires 25 minutes. There needs to be time in between each session for students to re-tally their GDP. This requires approximately another 3 minutes between session or 15 minutes. The debrief takes place after the game is played and requires 30 minutes including Q&A.

~1.5 hours

Version 2

The game is played continuously through all 10 trading sessions. This requires 15 minutes to introduce the game and discuss the rules. Each trading session lasts 5 minutes and there are 10 trading sessions which requires 50 minutes.  There needs to be time between each session for students to re-tally their GDP.  This requires approximately another 3 minutes between session or 30 minutes. The debrief takes place after the game is played and requires 30 minutes including Q&A.


Version 3

The game is played so that there is the debrief after each trading session. It requires 15 minutes to introduce the game and discuss the rules. Each trading session lasts 5 minutes, which requires 50 minutes. There are 3 minutes allowed after each session for students to tally their points, which is 30 minutes. This is accompanied by a 15 minute debrief before starting the next trading session. This adds an additional 150 minutes for the debrief sessions.

~4+ hours

Version 4

The game is played weekly, so each trading session is conducted over the course of a semester. It requires 15 minutes to introduce the game and discuss the rules. Each trading session is five minutes and there is a 3 minute rally after reach session accompanied by a class lecture/debrief that lasts 30-45 minutes. This can be followed by a weekly assessment or writing assignment.

~10 weeks

Getting the game started

Instructors can print out Appendix A as a one-page facilitator sheet that provides a summary of the game steps and materials needed to execute the game.

A handout template in Appendix B can be copied and then cut into squares to use as game cards as preparation. Make a copy of Appendix B for the number of students in the classroom.

Each card has a good or service with a point value written on it. Game cards should be placed on a table in the front of the class room in stacks (for example if the handout template is copied 25 times, there will be a stack of 25 oil cards). There are three options at this point for selecting the game cards to start the game. The instructor can use his/her discretion for which method to select:

  • Method One: Have students determine which country (based on the pre-assignment where students have selected a country to research) they are researching has the largest GDP and that student goes first, the next largest goes second, etc.
  • Method Two: Students have 3 minutes to go to the table with the game cards and select their 25 cards.
  • Method Three: Have a class lottery and pull names out of a box randomly to select the order in which students can come to the front table to select their 25 game cards.

Inform students of the rules for the trading game. The rules are highlighted in Figure 3 and can be copied on to a PowerPoint slide, whiteboard or verbally provided. Once the rules are provided, the instructor is ready to start the International Trading game. 

Students should be instructed to write the goods and point values on a piece of paper noting that after each trading round, they will need to recount their game cards and record.  If a large whiteboard is available, this information can be captured on a whiteboard by listing students' names vertically and trading sessions one through ten horizontally. The students’ total GDP game card count can be placed in the appropriate column on the table.

Inform students that the total of their starting game cards is their country’s starting GDP. They can now select two wild cards. The wildcards can represent any good or service the student wants it to be, as long as it is a good or service that involves sustainability or technology and is not currently represented in the trading game cards. The value of each wild card is 10 points. For example, a student may decide that technology patents is a wildcard item and intellectual property rights is their second wildcard item. The wildcard items cannot be the same as any of the other items that offered in the original deck of game cards (for example a student cannot write OIL on the wildcard). The wild cards cannot be traded until the special wild card trading session.

Instructors can prompt students to disclose their starting GDP to determine the strongest starting position and weakest.

It is important to give students a reason to trade. After all, if they are starting with a GDP amount, what would promote them to trade at all?

  • Countries can increase their point values based on the number of cards they have producing the same good. For example, owning two oil cards doubles their point value, owning three oil cards triples the value, and so forth. Then students would have an incentive to trade and would see gains from specialization/comparative advantages; OR
  • Knowing that some cards will change their value during the game, countries may want to diversify their mix of GDP; OR
  • Countries may want to change their mix of GDP and now specialize in something new.

You may begin the discussion prior to starting the game by highlighting the benefits of international trade and how various countries have comparative advantages. Inform students that for purposes of this game, their objective is to end the game with greater GDP than what they started with.

Figure 3. Rules of the game

  • Students must select 25 game cards. Students can select any combination of 25 cards that they would like. Students may want to be strategic in how they select cards and/or try to select game cards that correspond best to the country that they have been studying.
  • Students cannot change the value of the points on the game cards UNLESS the instructor notes an event that has happened that may change the point total (for example, if oil were to go from 5 points to 10 points, the student would not change all oil cards in their deck to reflect 10 points).
  • Each student will select 2 wildcards. The student must write anything of their choice on the wild card as long as it is innovative and technology related. The wild card cannot be the same as any other card in the deck. The student can have the same good on each wild card. For example, intellectual property rights could be the student’s two wildcard items. Each wildcard is worth 10 points.
  • Students must write the list of their cards, point value for each and total point value (which reflects their total GDP) on a white sheet of paper. As the game progresses, students are responsible for re-tallying their points and goods after each trading session.

The instructor will conduct trading sessions listed below. Each session should last no more than 5 minutes. After each session, students should recount their game cards and re-total their GDP. Have students share after each session their totals and identify the strongest country and the weakest country.

Figure 4. Ten trading sessions

Trade Session Event


Minutes to Play

Supporting Reference for Debrief Session

1. Open trade

Students can trade with other countries with a goal of obtaining a diversified mix of GDP and getting the most points possible

5 mins.

Websites and articles that show various countries mix of GDP, exports and imports; articles on fair trade.

2. Commodity Shock

Inform students that the price of oil has sky-rocketed.  Oil will now be worth 10 points going forward.

5 mins.

Articles about oil embargos.

3. Natural Disaster

Inform the students that a natural disaster has occurred. Each student must select a good worth 10 points to give to the IMF for redistribution to the global disaster victims.(note:  the instructor will collect these and keep in the front of the classroom)

5 mins.

Articles about tsunamis, earth quakes, or hurricanes.

4. Political Unrest

Inform students that a political event has happened involving the overthrow of a government in country XYZ. Because of the political unrest, inform students that they can only trade during this session with ONE other country of their choosing (note to instructor – these instructions can be adjusted to TWO countries depending on number of students in the classroom).

5 mins.

Articles about France’s political unrest or Russia/Ukraine.

5. Cybercrime

Inform students that an unknown group in country XYZ has raided bank accounts globally through a cybercrime. All students must give the instructor game cards totalling 5 points (the instructor will keep these in the front of the classroom)

5 mins.

Articles about cybercrime and global internet crimes.

6. Country Bankruptcy

Inform students that a country is having major solvency issues and has to borrow money.  Inform students that each country must give at least 10 points of a good to the country in need. (Note to instructor – identify the weakest player based on total points at this point and give the 10 points from each player to this individual).

5 mins.

Articles about Greece’s default, or country debt and/or current issues.

7. Country Sanctions

Inform students that all of the countries have imposed economic sanctions on a country. In the next trading round, country (instructor will randomly select a country/student) will have to sit out and not participate and additionally will have to give up five game points and give the cards totaling 5 points to the instructor (the instructor will hold the game cards in the front of the classroom)

5 mins.

Recent news articles on proposed economic sanctions against Russia.

8. Global Recession

Inform students that a global recession that started in the United States has now rocketed worldwide and is being experienced on a global basis. Tell students that the price of gold has now increased to 10 points.

5 mins.

Articles on the 2011 global recession.

9. Sustainability & innovation

Inform students that they can trade their wildcards in this session.

5 mins.

Articles on sustainability or futurist articles.

10. Students Pick

Students can write down an idea for a trading session based on a global event. The instructor can randomly draw one idea and that becomes the 10th and final trading session

5 mins.

Student that has his/her idea selected for the 10th round can debrief the group on why he/she selected this idea.

Debrief session

The debrief session(s) should consist of student reviewing what happened to their overall GDP as a result of each trading event (e.g., column #1 in Figure 3) and how this may impact their country’s economic future. The debrief should include a reference document or news article to tie the discussion to real world economic events to foster discussion relating to each trading session. The debrief sessions should be interactive with the instructor asking questions and students engaging in responses and further discussion.

Figure 5. Debrief questions

  • How was the trading session like the article of reference for this session?
  • How did it feel to be the weakest country?
  • How did it feel to be the strongest country?
  • Did any country feel that they wanted to change their GDP mix but couldn’t?
  • How do countries determine their GDP output?
  • How can you tie in the trading experience today to the country you are researching for your papers?
  • Where do comparative advantages come in to play in international trade?
  • Did anyone feel they had a comparative advantage in the trading sessions and why?
  • What is the role of the International Monetary Fund ?
  • How did you feel when you had to contribute to a disaster relief fund to help another country out?
  • How do you think countries make decisions about what goods to produce?  What goods to export? What goods to import?
  • How did you feel when the trading involved innovation?
  • What do you think about sustainability and the future of our planet? Should countries be concerned about this?
  • What issues are there when a good is scarce or there isn’t enough for everyone? Did you have to give up any good to purchase a good you wanted?
  • What opportunity costs do countries have to consider when they export/import?

If students were assigned a pre-work assignment (see Appendix A), the debrief provides an opportune time for each student to discuss their assigned country and how its GDP differs, or is similar to, the trading game results.

Ending the game

After all of the trading rounds have been played and the debrief(s) have been completed, the game has ended. Instructors can award prizes to students for any of the following:

  • wealthiest country (highest GDP),
  • most improved country (over the course of the game this country’s GDP would have improved the most),
  • most innovative country (country with the largest number of technology and wildcard points)

Downloadable materials

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