Playing the Game: Subverting The Triangle Trade

I am a proponent of game-based learning. Over the past seven years, it has become increasingly evident to me that games not only better engage my students than raw discussion, but also encourage me to better explain the nature of the concepts I am teaching.

In my Atlantic World module, I have two weeks of lectures and seminars devoted to the Atlantic slave trade. During the first week, we discussed the demographic impact of the trade, the quantitative scale of the migration and the experiences of the middle passage and settlement on American plantations. During that week’s seminar, I provided my students with tables of migration data, namely the embarkation and disembarkation figures of Dutch slaving vessels in the seventeenth century. I then asked them provide me with a graph, of some description, using the data given. I was very much pleased and surprised at the level of detail and imagination they showed: some demonstrated mortality rates over time, others the rate of slave purchases, others the relationship between ‘cargo size’ and mortality. Most importantly, as they had no prior warning, only a few of my students had the ‘necessary’ mathematical equipment, such as a calculator and ruler, Yet, they still tackled percentages and graphing with surprising gusto. Never let it be said that history students cannot do maths.

N. B. One student did actually have all these tools to hand; apparently he had placed them his pencil case in secondary school and had not yet got around to removing them.

The second week, we dived into the economic side of the theme, grappling with the contours of the so-called triangle trade: sugar, bibles and rum. As well as my students did with graphing the previous week, I did not want to bore them with yet another graphing exercise. (Evidently many of them thought I would, as they brought calculators and rulers to the next seminar). Instead, I wanted to play a game.

Now, while I am a proponent of game-based learning, I am not yet fully comfortable with designing games, especially for a tertiary education environment. Instead, I scoured the internet for triangle-trade learning activities on which I could build an appropriate 30-minute exercise of my own. After a bit of searching, I came across this one at Slavery in America.

Although it was aimed at school children, I thought a slimmed down version might be appropriate as a jumping off point for our group discussion. The game called for a number of props to facilitate the trading process, namely hogsheads of sugar (sugar packets), timber staves (coffee stirrers), rum (plastic water bottles or cups), colonial money (photocopies) and slaves (strips of construction papers in a chain).  Having hosted a number of conferences in recent months, I had all of these items squirrel away in my office.

When I arrived in the seminar room, props in hand, I asked my students to close their eyes and vote on whether we should play the ridiculous primary-school game or dive straight into the group discussion. The vote was unanimous (and only one student peaked).

After passing out the materials to my Caribbean sugar planters, African slave traders and New England merchants, we set about playing a few rounds of the game as described on the Slavery in America website. After a few rounds, the following became clear:

The game, as written, is completely and utterly rigged in favour of the merchants. 

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Carrying the rum, sugar and slaves was, in the long run, much more profitable than growing sugar or running the slave factories on the west coast of Africa.  My students disagreed.

Those who were acting as sugar merchants refused to buy products on credit (as was so often the downfall of eighteenth-century planters) and were very careful to maintain gender and age ratios in the purchase of their slaves. None of this, however, was taken into account in the scoring of points, nor did I allow them to restrict the sugar market and drive up prices.

Likewise, my students on the slave coast were extremely annoyed at the ridiculously low prices they were receiving for their slaves, considering the mark-up that their New England competitors were able to enforce. One, who was particularly diligent in that week’s reading, declared that the were the Kingdom of Dahomey and therefore should be able to restrict sales and significantly control prices. Historically, I couldn’t disagree with him, but there was no provision in the stated rules for this, so I had to deny his request.

After 50 minutes, we concluded the game. I was convinced it had all gone awry. My students had taken up the entire seminar session with the game, preventing any meaningful group discussion on the reading, and they had (almost) all been annoyed by the unfair advantage enjoyed by the New Englanders.

I decided that the game was not well suited for the seminar environment and stored away my sugar packets and timber staves.

This week, however, I received my end-o-term feedback. In almost every seminar group students raved about the game. It had really helped them understand the nature of the trade and, having told their friends about the seminar, had convinced them to take the module next year.

So, in the end, it didn’t matter that it had all gone horribly wrong. In fact, their attempted subversion of the rules actually proved to be a much more valuable learning activity than the game itself.

What will I do next time? Perhaps I will have them play a round or two and then spend the rest of the time ‘fixing’ the rules to better reflect the reality of the historical situation. Indeed, perhaps creating a game from scratch could serve as a piece of formative course work. My mind buzzes with the possibilities.

*image courtesy of stevendepolo and Chris Campbell

6 thoughts on “Playing the Game: Subverting The Triangle Trade

  1. An interesting experiment! Thank you for sharing. I think you hit the nail right on the head. By subverting the rules, the students see how games don’t just represent history, but actually make an argument for a particular historical understanding. The rules are the rhetoric. I tried getting students to play a scenario in Civ IV for credit once; bit of a disaster. A much better idea as you suggest to get them to fix the rules, and develop their own game instead. I’m hoping to do something like that in a class next year.

  2. I am a big fan of the Civilisation series. May I ask which scenario you had them attempt and, if it isn’t too painful, what went wrong?

    Update: I have found your earlier post at A very interesting attempt and similar conclusion about buy-ins. Should you attempt the project again in the future, please do let me know as I would be keen to try a multi-campus project someday on student game creation.

    • Hi again,

      I also blogged about it here, on Play the Past (“My Glorious Failure”

      I’m running a third year course next fall on gaming & simulation for history students. I’m not entirely sure what the formative assessment will look like, but the idea of a multi-campus project sounds intriguing!

  3. Sounds like a success to me! History isn’t always balanced to give everyone an equal chance of winning. And, I agree that getting the students to look at how the rules model historical process is important, which is why a game design exercise is useful.

  4. Emma Louise

    From a student perspective, this was one of the most entertaining and interesting seminars that I have ever attended. The level of preparation that must have gone in to it made us all feel rather special actually.

    Though the game itself might not have worked out as a true historical representation, I believe that this made the economics actually more real to me. It was like actively participating in a counterfactual exercise, as much as an accurate role play exercise, that highlighted the shortcomings and the motivations of those involved in the triangular trade. It made me question why the decisions that were made occurred, and see the other possibilities that could have arisen; as opposed to just being told what happened and accepting it at face value.

    I think that it was great to have such an engaging seminar activity, and it is one seminar that I will remember for a long time. Now when I am revising the topic, I cannot help but see myself as the owner of a Caribbean sugar plantation hoping that we will not have a fire or tropical storm this year!

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